Thu, Sep 17, 2015 - Page 11 News List

Classical CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

BRAHMS, Clarinet Quintet, by Reginald Kell, Busch Quartet

Reginald Kell, Busch Quartet, BRAHMS, Clarinet Quintet, Testament SBT 1001

David Shifrin, Emerson Quartet, BRAHMS, Clarinet Quintet, DG-E 4596412

Martin Frost, BRAHMS, Clarinet Quintet, BIS BIS2063

Boris Rener, Ludwig Quartet, BRAHMS, Clarinet Quintet, 8554601

Berlin Philharmonic Octet, BRAHMS, The Complete Quintets, Philips Duo CDA-1647

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet is one of chamber music’s greatest masterpieces. It’s ruminative, endlessly inventive, autumnal but also funny, and altogether a delight through and through.

According to there are an astonishing 95 versions currently available. Imagine my surprise, then, when in answer to asking which recording they preferred, two super-knowledgeable (and super-perceptive) friends, one in Italy, the other in the US, both independently opted for a version from 1937.

The term “chamber music” originally meant just that — music to be performed, not in a concert-hall, but in a room, or “chamber.” But it quickly took on a character of its own, the feeling that it’s a private, introspective exercise, the composer communing with himself, rather than penning something that’s intended for public display.

Another development was that the string quartet, a work for two violins, a viola and a cello, came to be regarded as the central chamber music form. The balance between the instruments seemed ideal, and first Haydn, then Mozart (influenced by Haydn), and then Beethoven (influenced in at least one instance by Mozart), all produced a whole sequence of masterpieces in the genre.

Quintets — very often a string quartet with one extra instrument added — were always rarer. They could be either string quintets (with either a second viola or a second cello added), or they could introduce a different kind of instrument, such as a piano or, as in one of Mozart’s most sublime works, a clarinet.

Johannes Brahms differed from the norm, however. Despite being an out-and-out classicist, he held back from composing string quartets, just as he initially held back from composing symphonies. Perhaps his very classicism made him aware of how illustrious his predecessors had been. Could he really equal Haydn and Mozart, let alone Beethoven? Either way, he claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before finally issuing his first two at the age of 40. And he only ever published three, none of them great works.

With quintets, however, it was a different matter. There are four in the Brahms canon, and two of them are undoubted triumphs. The Piano Quintet never really satisfied Brahms or his audiences. It was first conceived as a string quintet, but Brahms tore it up — a fact that hasn’t prevented one modern enthusiast from trying to reconstruct (and perform) it, and another from re-writing it for full orchestra. One way or another, it has never seemed quite right. His first string quintet, too, is less than brilliant.

But the Second String Quintet is one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote (as someone reputedly shouted out during its first rehearsal). And then there’s the Clarinet Quintet, the subject of today’s investigation.

Anyone attempting to write a clarinet quintet is going to be in the shadow of Mozart’s masterpiece. It’s confidently distinctive and richly melodic at one and the same time, profoundly aware of the clarinet’s character, and structurally original (it has two trios, for example, in the third movement instead of the usual one).

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