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Twilight of the Romantics
Walter RABL (1873-1940)
Quartet in E-flat major for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, Op. 1 (1896) [24:20]
Josef LABOR (1842-1924)
Quintet in D major for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, Op 11. (1900) [33:13]
The Orion Ensemble (Jennifer Marlas, viola; Kathryne Pirtle, clarinet; Florentina Ramniceanu, violin; Diana Schmück, piano; Judy Stone, cello)
rec. February and May 2005, studios WFMT radio, Chicago.
CEDILLE CDR90000088 [57:46]


Ah, the joy of discovery! In the seemingly endless flow of under-performed music to appear on recordings, this one stands out as a particular gem. Just when I thought that the late clarinet works of Johannes Brahms had brought the program to a close, lo appeareth these two splendid works by composers heretofore unknown to me.
 
Walter Rabl lapsed into obscurity as a composer perhaps by choice, since he gave up composing at the age of thirty to concentrate on conducting and coaching singers. Josef Labor, a man of no less talent, was hampered by his blindness which at the turn of the century was a far more limiting disability than it is today.
 
Rabl was not only a fine composer and conductor, but a scholar as well, contributing to the first edition of the Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich while still a doctoral student. It was his opera Liane which met with great critical success that was also to signal the end of his career as a composer. Apparently he was greatly disturbed that his opera was compared to Wagner, Rabl being a lifelong disciple of Brahms.
 
The quartet here is indeed in the Brahmsian mold. Rife with long-arching melodies, and cast in classical forms, this is the work of a conservative, traditionalist composer. The music is lovely and full of freshness, and although it is clearly of Brahms’ lineage, it is completely original. The Orion Ensemble has done us a great favor in presenting this work. They play with clarity of rhythm, excellent intonation and fine balance.
 
Josef Labor was left blinded by smallpox at the age of three. Consequently he was sent to school at Vienna’s Institute for the Blind. While there he showed a precocious talent for music. He was taken under wing by Hanover’s King Georg V, who was also blind. Labor would later become the Royal and Imperial Organist in 1904. He is known today principally for his organ music.
 
Although Brahms was never Labor’s direct mentor or teacher, the influence was tremendous, and the adherence to Brahms’ style is even more apparent in Labor’s work than in Rabl’s. The quintet is reflective and somewhat somber with long melodic lines and an overall sense of calm. It is truly a beautiful work, the kind of peaceful music that one reserves for solitary listening, late in the evening. Again, the Orions provide a fine performance.
 
Production values are very high, but I must admit that I would have preferred another venue than a radio studio for the recording. Although balanced, I really missed the reverberation of a more ambient room. I wouldn’t say that the sound was boxy in the old Columbia grey label sense, but ends of movements tend to stop a bit flat without the bloom that I particularly enjoy. Program notes are outstanding.
 
This is a highly desirable disc, and I can’t imagine that any lover of romantic chamber music would find this music anything less than pleasing.
 
Kevin Sutton
 

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