Brahms's Clarinet Quintet
Among the most cherished of all chamber works, the Quintet was written after Brahms visited the ducal court of Meiningen and heard Richard Mühlfeld, whom he considered one of the greatest woodwind players he had ever heard. It is a heartfelt work, and seems to sum up Brahms's life, with a mood of resignation-without-bitterness prevailing. This is one of Brahms's finest achievements.
Coupled with Clarinet Quintet*. Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op 114**
Thea King cl **Karina Georgian (vc) **Clifford Benson (pf) *Gabrieli Quartet
Hyperion CDA66107 (65‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
These players’ tempo in the Clarinet Quintet is more leisurely than most of their rivals. In the faster flanking movements of the Trio, a stronger forward drive mightn’t have come amiss. On the other hand, they allow themselves time to savour every bar to the full. Striking in both these performances is their underlying warmth of heart. You’ll respond easily to their quality of good-natured, unforced civility. The ensemble is excellent, with the clarinet very much one of the team, never assuming the role of soloist in a quasi-chamber concerto.
Thea King’s phrasing is unfailingly perceptive and stylish, and her undemonstrative, wise artistry in both works is most appealing. In the Trio, the sumptuous-sounding cello is impressive, which at times makes you feel that Brahms could just as well have called the work a cello trio. This is a disc which will bear frequent repetition. Playing such as this, committed and serious, yet at the same time relaxed and spontaneous, isn’t easy to contrive in the recording studio, and Hyperion has done well to capture these interpretations on the wing. The sound is very good indeed, mellow and natural.
Coupled with String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 51 No 2
Karl Leister (cl) Leipzig Quartet
Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG307 0719-2 (71‘ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
One of the most attractive qualities of this version of the well-loved Quintet is the skill with which the artists, abetted by the record producer, have integrated the clarinet into the string textures. Having listened more creatively than any other composer to Mozart’s example, Brahms allows the clarinet to become part of the tone colour in the string ensemble; and he has also followed the implications, as not all his interpreters seem to understand. Here, the little falling third theme, one of his lifelong obsessions, moves in and out of the musical texture with wonderful subtlety, so that the return of the opening figure at the very end needs no special emphasis but is a natural conclusion.
Leister is an artist of long skill and experience, and also of great musical intelligence; the qualities tell. They also mean that there’s no need to confer upon the performance anything approaching the sentimentality which can afflict it, in the name of ‘nostalgia’ as the old composer looks affectionately back on his life’s work. This is quite a robust performance, clearly appreciated by the enthusiastic young string quartet, who give a suitably matching account of the A minor Quartet. There are, of course, any number of performances of the Quintet but this coupling is unique.