BRAHMS; HINDEMITH Clarinet Quintets
The playing of Richard Mühlfeld coaxed Johannes Brahms out of retirement, into a glorious Indian summer yielding such works as the Clarinet Quintet, the Trio and a pair of sonatas that are among the instrument’s crown jewels. ‘Fräulein Klarinette’ and ‘my dear nightingale’ were among Brahms’s nicknames for Mühlfeld and we have contemporary accounts of Mühlfeld’s playing in the Quintet as having ‘an unusual dynamic range at times, the fortissimos being very powerful’. Moreover, ‘he did not endeavour to get all the “limelight” in the Quintet, but obviously considered himself as no greater (or lesser) than the string players’. When star players perform the Quintet, a key test can be how well they blend with the string players and how much personality is permitted to shine through.
In these two new recordings, both clarinettists are on the more deferential side. Raphaël Sévère, with the Pražák Quartet, has very careful phrasing and articulation but tends to play safe with dynamics. The dramatic interlude in the middle of the Adagio is full of velvety soft ripples but lacks the rhapsodic Hungarian feel Brahms requires. However, Sévère blends beautifully with the quartet, who possess a mellow, supple string sound. There is a sense of impish fun in the Andantino and a charming lilt to the 3/8 variation just before the work’s close.
Sharon Kam is richer in tone than Sévère and is joined not by an established quartet but by a line-up of string soloists led by the excellent violinist Isabelle van Keulen. The string-playing has more sinew than the Pražáks but – like Sévère – Kam doesn’t dominate the texture. She treads too carefully at the start of the Hungarian section, until allowing a wilder gypsy side to steal in. Neither recording is a match for the likes of Martin Fröst and Andreas Ottensamer, both displaying a wider dynamic range and greater personality.
The couplings on these discs bring rarer fare which may well sway you into a purchase. Max Reger’s Quintet is given an expressive performance by Kam & Co, its Vivace scherzo skittering along at a delicate pianissimo. Van Keulen leads some gorgeous string-playing in the Largo, encouraging Kam into her most rhapsodic response on the disc. Like Mozart and Brahms before him, Reger concludes with a set of variations, engagingly done here.
Paul Hindemith’s five-movement Clarinet Quintet occupies a different world to that of the Brahms, a more fractured, pungent one. Composed in 1923, it builds on Austrian tradition, even employing an E flat clarinet to shrill a ‘Schneller Ländler’ third movement typical of village ensembles. The sparseness of the fourth movement seems to anticipate Britten or Shostakovich, while the finale throws everything into confusion, presenting the first movement in reverse! Sévère and the Pražák Quartet give a boisterous performance, which should win the work new friends.