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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor (1891), op. 115 [36:02]
Ernst von DOHNANYI ( 1877-1960)

Sextet in C major (1934), op. 37 for string trio, clarinet, horn and piano [31:09]
Gary Gray (clarinet); Richard Todd (horn); Robert Thies (piano); New Hollywood String Quartet
rec. 4-5 March 2004, House of the Book, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Brandeis, California. DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2745 [67:12]

This recording of the well-known Brahms Clarinet Quintet, one of his four great late-period clarinet chamber pieces, is an old friend in a new outfit. The performance has a distinctively American, indeed West Coast, sound. It shimmys in, Hollywood in nature as well as in name, with a jazzy feel sneaking in from time to time.

Mostly I like this incarnation, although at times I feel it lacks the robustness I would welcome in a more European approach to this work which is after all German in origin. At other times the lilting jazziness works well, for example in the adagio second movement, foreshadowing Benny Goodman in its sound-world. As the work draws gently to its close, one can see a mental picture of a fading beauty, still glamorous but withdrawn from the limelight. The ending is not fierce or dramatic but gentle. The music retires peacefully to seek ultimate repose, pausing briefly to take a final bow in its closing chord.

I like this version, but I would not want it as my only recording of the work. I like Gary Gray's playing, but the clarinetist I like best in this work remains Gervase de Peyer - for example paired with Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in a 70th birthday recording on Radiant Mastery (GDP 1003), although this is not the most recent recording available by any stretch. As an accompaniment to the Dohnanyi, this recording is a good bonus. As a second or additional recording it is a distinct account of definite merit and would be welcome, particularly for those with an interest in American music.

The Dohnanyi is an interesting pairing stylistically speaking: it is a less well-known work and less easy to get the measure of initially. Whilst on a bigger scale, not merely in terms of one more instrument but in being more statuesque and less intimate, it remains somewhat diffuse. It is perhaps interesting because it bridges the divide between romanticism on the one hand and modernism on the other.

The composer is the grandfather of the conductor Christoph von Donanyi. A conductor himself, as well as a distinguished pianist he was the teacher of Georg Solti and a champion of the music of Bartók. He toured extensively in Europe and the United States and also lived for a time in Argentina. This may shed light on this work’s eclectic international style, albeit one through which there is more than the occasional glimpse of the composer's Hungarian roots.

The musicianship is to match, with glissandi strings. The piano part is played in a light and romantic style, which works well, particularly in the second, intermezzo - adagio movement. The clarinet is less in the foreground than in the Brahms, being a more even-handed team member rather than a quasi-soloist, although there is a nice opener for it in the third, allegro movement. The horn then enters firmly and distinctly, bringing focus and urgency, which come as something of a relief to the listener. Although the music mellows out melodiously from this point, a certain firmness remains within the lyricism making this in my opinion the most balanced of the movements. It recalls at times Brahms' Second Symphony. The lively finale draws the various strands of the work together for a well-rounded conclusion.

The work, which in its own right is good but not outstanding, would mainly be of interest to those with a particular interest in the development of the Hungarian musical tradition, or those who want to take a thorough, if not completist, approach to clarinet chamber music. The Brahms Quintet is a good pairing, but is unlikely to be the first or only recording of this work a collector would want, unless they especially favoured American musicianship. Those interested in American performance and music might want to consider this as an alternative the forthcoming release from Challenge, which pairs the Brahms quintet with a chamber arrangement drawn from Bernstein's West Side Story. The disc is therefore mainly of interest to those with specialised interests and collections rather than the general classical music listener. The latter would in my opinion be better to spend their money on Deutsche Grammophon's boxed set (474 3582) of Brahms' chamber works including the clarinet quintet, now available at a very reasonable price.

Julie Williams


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