In Friendship
César CANO (b.1960) Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op.74 (2011) [20:22]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op.115 (1891) [39:10]
Joan Enric Lluna (clarinet)
The Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo, Fred Lifsitz (violins), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
rec. 12-14 July 2011, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California.
The Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is his masterpiece, and possibly his most universally loved creation. I’d say that in any chamber music hit-parade it would make the Top Five. By the time he wrote it, the composer had reached the peak of communication directly between his soul and the soul of the listener. The four movements of the quintet are like a well-filmed movie, showing intimate and profound feelings as well as both action and introspection.
As with all great works, this one allows for different readings. In this performance the first movement does not relax too far, it retains its inherent energy and that sense of flight. Its tenderness is muscular, and the yearning is more dramatic than melancholic. This temperament is somewhat reminiscent of the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony. The development section is pensive yet wakeful. The clarinet is firm and masculine, and blends well with the crisp white sound of the Alexander strings. This more energetic presentation of the first movement emphasizes the second as a true slow movement: a soft, feline reverie, with a hushed interplay of shadows and hints. The “gypsy-hued” middle episode is expressive. The sound of the clarinet is a shade hard but is not harsh. Its intonations are beautiful and the transitions between the notes are accurate and even. The playing is assured and smooth.
The lively third movement is full of Brahms’ signature mood-changes between smiles and blues. The performance is active and friendly. It is on the fast side and has a certain cool Mendelssohnian bustle. The finale is once again full of lyrical yearning. Some of the variations are dramatic and turbulent; others plaintive or quietly nostalgic. The theme bears a resemblance to a Slavic folk song; perhaps the influence of Dvoràk. The players do not dawdle, but the speed is excessive, and there is the same feeling of flight as in the first movement. The clarinet avoids foamy bubbling and the leaps and flourishes are accurate and clean. By and large, the performance of the entire quintet is cool and fresh never breathless. The ensemble is carefully balanced. This music is often described as autumnal, but this performance has a wintry signature that still conveys the work’s melancholic beauty.
The Clarinet Quintet of César Cano comes from a different world. The first movement, entitled Veiled Proportions, is quite Bartòkian. It starts with a slower introduction, and then picks up tempo and density. The music is poly-rhythmic, dark and jazzy, with jagged spikes. Although quite modern, it is never ugly. Reason and logic are there in the fabric. The second movement, Echoes and Duels, is a lightly galloping Scherzo, dry and bouncy, with instruments running one after another and playing in ricochet. Again, I sense the spirit of Bartòk, which is supported by the Balkan character of the short main motif. The music has a serious musical structure, a rich rhythmic base and a certain “healthy wildness”.
The third movement Oblique Chants is slow and mysterious, like a night in the jungle. It explores interesting sonic effects and creates a mesmeric, glistening and throbbing sound-space. The finale has the title Florid Pulse and is again driven by sophisticated rhythmic patterns; the booklet mentions various internal reorganizations of 7/8, 8/8 and 9/8 meters. This is not an empty-headed, garrulous finale, but a serious, multi-layered movement with tension and drive. The music is energetic, with gradually increasing speed and tension, rolling forward to a final stretch of happy running.
Overall, this Cano quintet leaves the impression of a very well made contemporary work and I was impressed by its musicality. The calculations are careful and the theoretical “technology” employed by the composer does not obtrude or compromise things at an emotional level. Not a single minute of the work is boring. The performance flows as in the Brahms and the feeling of empathy between clarinetist and string players is striking. The blend and the balance are perfect.
The album is called In Friendship, and the booklet asserts that the best works for clarinet and strings, those by Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Nielsen, were created when the inspirational clarinetist was the composer’s friend. This is also the case with the new work by Cano. Indeed, there is otherwise little in common between the two quintets except for the forces involved. I doubt that you will want every time to hear both works in sequence. However, depending on your mood, you may want to return either to the dark and gritty Cano, or to the lean and luminous Brahms.
The recording quality is very good: detailed yet not too close, light and transparent. The sound has a certain “plastic-synthetic” quality, though not to a disturbing level. The booklet recounts in English and Spanish the history of “clarinet plus strings” formula. The works, the composer César Cano and the performers are all profiled. The notes are nicely spiced with personal reflections from the Alexander Quartet members. As with all the other records of the Alexander Quartet that I have heard, this one presents inspired performances of inspired music.
Oleg Ledeniov
Inspired performances of inspired music.

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