Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115; String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115; String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111
PERFORMER: Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Hariolf Schlichtig (viola); Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56759 2
The G major String Quintet was to have been Brahms’s swan-song. He was in his late fifties when he composed it, and had vowed to lay his pen aside; but the following year he met the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, for whose tender sounds he went on to write four of his finest chamber works. The String Quintet is actually among Brahms’s most ebullient works, and it receives appropriately full-blooded treatment here. This is a wonderfully uplifting performance, with no hint of a compromise over the notoriously problematic dynamics of the opening page, where the cello’s melody is accompanied by forceful tremolandos from the remainder of the ensemble. At the same time, these players probe deeply into the brooding melancholy of the slow movement, and they find just the right tone for the bitter-sweet waltz that follows.

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Rather less successful is the Clarinet Quintet. Sabine Meyer’s dark, velvety tone is a constant delight, but the extreme expressive intensity of some of the string playing borders on the sentimental, and tends to clog the music’s texture with too much detail. The first violin is much too prominent, for instance, at the opening of the slow movement, where his part shadows the clarinet’s melody in syncopation; and the following intermezzo-like piece also lacks simplicity. There is more serenity (and a greater sense of gypsy abandon in the Adagio’s central episode) in the historic performance by Reginald Kell and the Busch Quartet. Now more than 60 years old, their version still gives immense pleasure. Misha Donat