Robert FUCHS (1847-1927)
Clarinet Quintet in E flat major Op.102 (1914) [34:20]
Ferdinand THIERIOT (1838-1919)
Clarinet Quintet in E flat major (1897) [25:18]
Stephan Siegenthaler (clarinet): Stamic Quartet Prague
rec. Studio de la Fondation Tibor Varga Grimisuat/Sion, December 2005
STERLING CDA 1674-2 [59:52]

These two clarinet quintets fall under the rubric ‘Romantic Quintets’. Both composers had an association with Brahms. Fuchs was a particularly good friend of the older man, but though Brahms found Fuchs’s work ‘amiable’ he went on to decry it, adding that ‘there is no depth to Fuchs anywhere’. Ferdinand Thieriot, like Brahms, was born in Hamburg and it was apparently via Brahms that Thieriot obtained an appointment in Graz in 1870.

Both these lesser known composers’ reputations have dimmed over the decades. Whilst Fuchs may still attract some interest, almost none now accrues to Thieriot. Fuchs’ Clarinet Quintet was written in 1914 and first performed by Fritz Behrend and the Busch Quartet in April 1917. In four movements it’s certainly a democratic work, parcelling out some of the most passionate and declamatory writing to the quartet. It allows the clarinet its moments of long-breathed elegance emerging fully integrated from the music’s texture. Indeed, for some, the relative subservience of the clarinet may prove problematic, though I prefer to see Fuchs’ intent as a quintet of equals. The complication is how to add the wind voice to the strings in such a scheme. There’s a jaunty march in the scherzo, ending with resolute pizzicati, and a warmly lyric slow movement, certainly reminiscent of Brahms’s own clarinet quintet, and the clarinet sonatas too. The obbligato or decorative passages for clarinet are certainly striking here, as the instrument muses, comments on, or soliloquizes at times independent of the string writing. Affable and relaxed, Fuchs’ finale is certainly ‘grazioso’, though it does tend to ramble a little. Toward the end a folk-like tune emerges, to considerable benefit.

Thieriot’s Quintet was written nearly twenty years earlier, in 1897, the year of Brahms’s death. It’s altogether a lighter and jauntier work than Fuchs’. There’s an amusing, trifling quality to some of the phraseology, late-romanticism at its most ingratiating, though thematically it does rather lack a strong profile and sense of distinction. The Scherzo reprises the drollery and even the somewhat more serious trio doesn’t efface the light-hearted character of the music. The slow movement is attractively warm, never pious or precious, and the finale is leisurely and attractive. It doesn’t sound, in this performance, Allegro con fuoco, however.

The Stamic, as ever, play with devoted warmth and depth of tone. Clarinettist Stephan Siegenthaler has had an interesting career. A one time principal of the Biel Symphony, he then co-founded a medical company, which he led for a number of years before returning to full-time music; from 2008 to 2010 he was Rector of Music in Lucerne. He’s a mellifluous player, though I sense that he could be more assertive, tonally and in terms of tempo, more often.

The 2005 recording is good, catching the ensemble in plausible balance, and the notes are helpful. This is Late-Romantic chamber music of fluency, charm and elegance. There’s not a huge amount of expressive depth – Brahms’s strictures apply to a large degree – but that may not be the point. If you feel an affinity for the affiliation of clarinet and quintet and are susceptible to the genre, you will enjoy these performances.

Jonathan Woolf

If you feel an affinity for the affiliation of clarinet and quintet and are susceptible to the genre, you will enjoy these performances.