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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 (1789) [31:32]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115* (1891) [39:00]
Scharoun Ensemble Berlin: (Karl-Heinz Steffens (clarinet), Guy Braunstein (violin 1),
Christoph Streuli (violin 2), Ulrich Knorzer (viola), Richard Duven (cello))
rec. Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie, 22-23 June 2005, *Grosser Saal der Berliner Philharmonie, 5-8 February 2006 DDD
TUDOR 7137 [70:44]


 

The Scharoun Ensemble consists of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. From the opening of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet we sense a refined warmth and stylish presentation about their music-making. At the arrival of the second theme (tr. 1 1:22) the slight softening and expressive reticence in the first violin’s second phrase is made the nucleus of the following clouded clarinet solo. The development (5:10), by contrast, is stimulatingly playful while the clarinet makes the return of the second theme an expansive commentary on its nature and potential.

The slow movement is of serene relaxation, a seamless arioso with Karl-Heinz Steffens achieving sensitively soft playing even at the melodic apexes. At the same time it has quite an animated flow which gives it an appreciable shape, rather more than a sense of repose. Yet the latter comes at the sotto voce return of the clarinet solo.

The Minuet begins more formally to point the contrast of first violin, then clarinet taking flight in the running quavers of the second section (tr. 3 0:20). In the first Trio (1:21) you note the fastidious clarity of the syncopations and fp effects. The second Trio (4:03) sports a carefree clarinet supported by a somewhat more genial first violin.

The variations finale is more chipper. Notable is Variation 1 (tr. 4 0:55) with a sunny clarinet’s deft leaps riding high above the violins with the theme. Variation 3 (2:51) finds a morose viola solo smoothly encased by the ensemble. Variation 5 marked Adagio (5:10), a wonderful distillation of the essence of the melody, is given suitably sustained treatment. Variation 6 (8:11) brings us full circle, chirpily rounding things off with simplicity and a satisfying neatness.

I compared the 1998 recording by Janet Hilton and the Lindsays (ASV CDDCA 1042). Here are the comparative timings


Timings

I

II

III

IV

Total

Scharoun Ensemble

8:57 (12:44)

6:14 

6:59

9:08

31:32 (35:19)

Hilton & The Lindsays

(9:11) 13:13

6:44

6:57

8:58

35:52 (31:50)

The discrepancy in the first movement arises because Hilton and the Lindsays repeat its second half as well as exposition. My timings show the effect of both the presence and the absence of this repeat. Despite their slightly slower tempo Hilton and the Lindsays are more keenly expressive in the opening. The clarinet is more animated and gets a like response from the strings which impels the music forward. The Scharoun Ensemble are content to smooth forward and simply savour the opening, reserving a more dramatic approach for the second theme. Steffens takes this up as if facing and then coming out of adversity whereas Hilton makes it of a more beguiling, enigmatic character. The Lindsays bring great resilience to the development. The Scharouns are more turbulent initially but then smooth out to prepare for the recapitulation.

Hilton’s slow movement, slightly slower than Steffens, is more probingly songlike with radiant, glowing tone. The airier ASV recording helps. The Tudor recording is close, comfortable but a little neutral. The Scharoun Ensemble, though suavely accomplished, isn’t as moving. First violin Guy Braunstein is assured and sweet in his duets with Steffens but doesn’t have Peter Cropper’s gentleness. However, Steffens’ reprise of the melody is melting enough.

The Lindsays’ Minuet has a touch more bounce at the outset and a Trio 1 of intricately troubled melancholy where the Scharouns offer a sweeter delicacy achieved by stylish rubato. Both groups sensitively attend to the duet between first violin and viola in the second section. Steffens is more bubbly in Trio 2 where Hilton relies on comely grace.

The Lindsays’ finale opens with a blither trimness than the Scharoun’s. Hilton’s soaring in Variation 1 is more graceful and airy than Steffens’ more physical yet still carefree gymnastics. The Lindsays show more zest in Variation 2 where the Scharoun’s articulation is firmer. In Variation 3 Robin Ireland’s viola for The Lindsays is warmer where the more measured Ulrich Knorzer is more lugubrious. The Lindsays’ Variation 4 has an energetic joie de vivre. The Scharouns are merrier as a contrast from their sadder previous variation. In Variation 5 the Lindsays show a poised, sweet repose while the Scharouns are more expansively reflective. Variation 6 finds the Lindsays back in zestful mode where the Scharouns achieve a skipping canter. The Lindsays focus on the variety of character found within the variations, the Scharoun Ensemble keep their relationship to the theme more on display.

The other work on this SACD, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet benefits from the change of venue to the more yielding and airy acoustic of the main hall of the Philharmonie. There’s a reflective and detailed savouring of the lyricism of the first movement, a performance of concentration rather than flow with often a gripping outcome. For example, the marked pause at the crotchet plus semiquaver rest following the martial figure (tr. 5 1:10) emphasises its rhetoric yet the intent presentation of the second group of themes (1:40) confirms their intrinsic ardour at the same time as their relaxed contours. This is a performance of vertical intensity revealing Brahms’ rich textures, in particular those of the Quasi sostenuto section of the development (7:22).

The slow movement has appreciable poise and sensitivity with a tender return of the opening material. Its central section (tr. 6 3:24) seems here a virtuoso meditation. The third movement (tr. 7), beginning with a clarinet solo marked ‘simple’ for me starts a little too dourly. Its second, very fast, section (1:26) is given a wispy animation.

There’s a resolute purpose about the opening of this variations finale (tr. 8). The fourth variation (4:56) is notably wistfully reflective with clarinet and first violin finely integrated paving the way for a more sober fifth variation (6:34) and thus natural transition to the recall of the first movement (7:33). As then the Scharoun Ensemble gives full attention to the rests, here bringing an especially elegiac mood.


I compared the 2005 recording on SACD by Leslie Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Linn CKD 278). Here are the comparative timings


Timings

I

II

III

IV

Total

Scharoun Ensemble

13:19

11:19

4:40

9:27

39:00

Schatzberger & the Fitzwilliams

11:27

10:23

4:24

8:25

34:39

Consistently the Schatzberger and Fitzwilliams is a faster, more flowing account, favouring a horizontal focus, an interpretation of more attack, more marked dynamic contrasts with a more spacious surround sound recording. On the other hand, the Scharouns’ relatively gentler savouring with every detail observed and sensitive phrasing has its own validity, for example the more laid-back first movement second theme (tr. 5 1:41), natural recapitulation (9:19) and then the contrast of a climactic statement of the first theme at 11:59 as vibrant as you could wish.

The Scharouns’ slow movement is more mellow and dreamy in its greater expansive reflection, less sorrowful than the Fitzwilliams, with its central section not as dramatic and declamatory, though its climactic section (tr. 6 5:42) is firm enough. The Fitzwilliam first violin, Lucy Russell, uses portamento, slide between notes, in solo passages where the Scharouns’ Guy Braunstein uses it, less exposed, when in duet with clarinet (e.g. at 2:24).

In the third movement Schatzberger finds an untroubled nonchalance from which energy and joy spring forth. Steffens leads a progress which is quieter in outcome. The Fitzwilliams’ second section is friskier, with a playful and animated character throughout. The Scharouns are nervier and there’s a strong chiaroscuro effect with enigmatic shadows falling across the scene.

The Fitzwilliams’ variations finale begins with a natural, accepting flow but the Scharouns bring more wistfulness to the first variation (tr. 8 1:04) with appreciable care in its presentation and the interrelation of the instruments. Their vigour in the second variation (2:16) doesn’t match the Fitzwilliams’ fiery scintillation but their fastidious elegance in the third (3:29) and merry clarinet in the second section is as distinctive as the Fitzwilliams’ winsome delicacy. Their fourth variation has a dreamy gaze, not quite the Fitzwilliams’ golden lyricism but clearly the happiest time and gateway to their sensitive shading of the close of the movement.

These are beautifully played orthodox performances of a cultivated homogeneity. For me they’re a touch overmuch on the quiet and sober side but you might find the Scharoun Ensemble’s contemplative manner eloquent.

Michael Greenhalgh

 


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