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Quintets for Clarinet and Strings
Johannes BRAHMS
(1833-1897)
Quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings, Op.115 (1891) [38:37]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quintet in A for clarinet and strings, K.581 (1790) [30:37]
Håkan Rosengren (clarinet)
Chiara Quartet
rec. Festival Hill, Round Top, Texas, January 2005 and January 2006
ROUND TOP RECORDS RTR015 [69:36]


This issue puzzled me when I saw it. The packaging is professional enough, but I'd never heard of the record label, and the disc hasn't an order number. If you suspect a home-grown production, your instincts are quicker than mine, and you're right. The International Festival-Institute at Round Top, in Texas, was "founded in 1971 by world-renowned concert pianist James Dick" - according to its website, festivalhill.org. It describes itself as "an internationally acclaimed European-styled music institute for aspiring young musicians and distinguished faculty." The disc looks like a private issue by the festival, though I couldn't find any mention of it on the site - and, for what it's worth, I notice the artists themselves hold the copyright.

The choice of program for this lead-off release suggests that Round Top has Marlboro-style aspirations as a training and performance center for chamber music. On the strength of this disc, it looks like the festival is well on the way to realizing those aspirations. These players aren't household names, but they all have respectable international credits, and their performance of the Brahms quintet proves tonally as well as interpretatively distinctive. 

It's not easy for a clarinetist to stand out from the general recorded run these days, and not just because of the abundance of fine players: digital recording seems somehow to favor the instrument, to flatter its attack and overtones, bringing out its expressive capacity with striking realism. Håkan Rosengren's distinctive gift is a lightly touched "sub-tone" or echo tone that, like a fine singer's mezza voce, allows for some beautiful, nuanced shadings in the Brahms. Of course, such an effect could, like that mezza voce, become cloying or pallid if overused, but Rosengren deploys it sparingly, reserving it for such phrases as at 5:09 of the first movement. Otherwise, he is a capable technician and a musical artist with a good feeling for the long, arching phrase. Rosengren's uppermost notes, as at 6:00 of the Adagio, threaten to turn piercing; fortunately, this remains only a threat. 

Turning to his collaborators, most string quartets tend toward an overall sonority that is either predominantly bright, like the Guarneri, or predominantly dark, like the old Italiano. But the Chiara Quartet, recently artists-in-residence at the University of Nebraska, vary the balance of chiaroscuro elements across the working range, whether consciously or instinctively. The shining first violin suggests a reserve of depth; the dusky cello has markedly bright overtones; and the middle voices adjust their timbral balances accordingly. This particularly benefits Brahms's counterpoint, which here sounds awash in a variety of tonal colors; yet the homophonic passages sound remarkably unified. 

The hint of roughness in the string tone, the sort of thing that other quartets assiduously smooth away, may also surprise you. The Chiara players are never coarse or inaccurate - the pitches are well-centered, the interplay of voices sensitive - so this is clearly a deliberate choice on their part, rather than a symptom of technical shortcomings. The touch of rawness lends the lyrical passages a rustic character that suits them, while adding a bracing edge to recurring accompaniment figures such as Brahms's driving, pulsing triplets. 

In the resulting performance, all these musicians' best instincts come into play. In the opening, the strings underline a disturbed undercurrent - customarily underplayed in favor of a reflexive "autumnal" warmth - while the climaxes later on are noticeably taut. Rosengren begins the Adagio introspectively, the return of the first-movement motif leading to a more turbulent interplay with the strings. The start of the intermezzo-like Andantino serves much the same function within the overall structure as does the corresponding movement of the Second Symphony. That and the finale's main theme can sound flat-footed or square; here, both these passages sing and "breathe" naturally. This intelligent, alert performance is a pleasure. 

After this, the Mozart disappoints. It sounds inhibited: the phrasing remains purposeful and musically guided, but it felt as if the dynamic range was deliberately being reined in, perhaps out of an erroneous perception of Classical style. Whatever the reason, the results are genial, relaxed and too subdued. Only in moments like the big arpeggiated flourish near the start, where Rosengren can't help releasing his sound, does the performance spring fleetingly to life. 

Veteran collectors will find this worth tracking down and hearing for the Brahms. If you just want a single edition of this program, though, you'd be better off finding the Decca coupling by the Vienna Octet members - sensitively rendered, with impeccably cultivated tone and handsome recorded sound. 

Stephen Francis Vasta

 

 

 


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