Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B mino

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Onyx
WORKS: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (arr. viola); Two Songs, Op. 91; String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111
PERFORMER: Maxim Rysanov, Julia Deyneka (viola), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Alexander Sitkovetsky, Mariana Osipova, Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Kristine Blaumane (cello), Ashley Wass (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Onyx 4054

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The excellent Maxim Rysanov has already explored Brahms’s viola works for Onyx in a double album that enterprisingly included the viola versions of the Horn Trio and Clarinet Trio. Here he essays the rarest and in some ways strangest of these adaptations: the version of the Clarinet Quintet in which Brahms replaced the clarinet with a second viola.
 
This is almost never played, but it is no mere oddity. As with the viola version of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, the effect is of a string quintet with viola principale, and there are losses but also gains. Without the distinctive clarinet timbre, stretches of passagework vanish into the homogenised string texture, and we lose the clarinet’s smoothness and liquidity of line. But the viola invests its melodic lines with an altogether darker, huskier quality, which completely nullifies the risk of sentimentality usually ever-present in this work.
 
In the rhapsodic musings of the slow movement Rysanov becomes the idealised incarnation of the gypsy fiddler that Brahms surely had in mind when composing that uniquely florid part. The whole work receives a performance of such intensity and expressive unanimity that I’m convinced this version was worth disinterring.
 
It is complemented by a warm, even rapturous performance of the G major String Quintet, where Rysanov is content to let Kristine Blaumane’s cello have the limelight. Again, I loved the unbuttoned gypsy quality of the playing in the finale, especially the fiery coda. Beautifully-balanced and deeply-felt accounts of the two Op. 91 songs with viola, where Alice Coote’s voice seems perfectly to offset Rysanov’s tone, complete a remarkably successful and rewarding disc. Calum MacDonald