Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Brahms and the Clarinet Part 1

The next installment about Brahms takes place near the end of his life, after he had declared he had retired from composing in 1890. However, during a trip to Meiningen in 1891, he was enthralled with the talents of a clarinet player named Richard Muhlfeld. What followed was a trio, quintet, and some sonatas.

Of the two, it seems that the quintet is the more popular, though I personally prefer the trio. I have a handful of recordings of these works, which were part of CDs I acquired for other works on the albums. Having spent some time with these works, however, I've come to really like them. I'll start with the quintet.

One version of this work I have is that of the Tokyo String Quartet featuring JE Lluna on clarinet. On first listen, it seemed to me that the quartet was attacking the music, rather than playing it. Of the three versions I have, I like this one the least, and I think I'm even going to put it on eBay or something. It includes the clarinet trio, which I didn't give much of a listen, based on my displeasure with the quintet. Looking back at my listening notes, I read "Another deep listen of the Tokyo Quartet version does not strike me as harsh...A very workman-like performance that isn't bad per se; just not as likable as the other two."

The Berlin Philharmonic Octet performs on the Philips 2-CD set Brahms: The Complete Quintets. Aside from the clarinet quintet, the piano and two string quintets are on this collection. To my taste the Berlin Octet (members of the octet, actually) performed the work much more romantically, rather than in attack mode as by the Tokyo Quartet. It seemed much more pleasant at the outset. From my notes: "I find this version the most pleasing. While the other two are good, at the end of the [Berlin Octet version] I feel as if I've been present at a sublime experience."

The third recording features the Brahms Double Concerto, but also has the Capucon Quartet with Paul Meyer on the clarinet. This recording has amazing sound; every note is played to its fullest (fullest what? sound quality, failing to find a better word), with a bit of filigree. Their third movement reminds me of frolic through a meadow. The last movement returns to minor mode, ending in a bittersweet chord. This movement taught me a lot about how much sound can be produced from just a few instruments.

(Clarinet Trio to follow)


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