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César CANO (b.1960)
Clarinet Quintet, Op. 74 (2011) [20:22]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 [39:10]
Joan Enric Lluna (clarinet)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 12-14 July 2011, St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California, USA
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2007 [59:32]

The Alexander String Quartet present a Brahms clarinet quintet recording of unusual interest, because it’s coupled with a brand-new clarinet quintet that’s a striking and satisfying contrast. César Cano is a Spanish composer, from Valencia, who keeps alive old traditions of craft, stimulating content, and rushing to meet a deadline. His clarinet quintet was commissioned by these performers, and finished just two weeks before the scheduled debut. Cano and clarinetist Joan Enric Lluna were classmates at school, and have been friends ever since.

The quintet is not too long, just twenty minutes, and perfectly proportioned. As for what to expect: the music is ‘modern’ in language, but not harsh, nor is it especially hard on the ear. Don’t expect “Spanish” musical clichés; honestly the driving rhythms and overall feel reminded me of the mid-century American school. Cano is a master of polyrhythms, challenging you to tap along with complex figures. One such comes in the scherzo, supplied by the strings under a klezmer-like clarinet melody. The slow movement (“Cantos Oblicuos”) is a spooky nocturne with harmonics and glissandi among the effects deployed by the violins. The music is interesting and the performance fantastic.

The Alexander Quartet’s approach to Johannes Brahms is a luxurious one: slightly slow, with a big, expansive ensemble sound. The four string players are equals, and seemingly incapable of making ugly sounds, so deep and rich are the tones their instruments produce. This account of the quintet is very slightly slower than average, based on the rival versions I know: Prazak/Moragues, Brandis/Leister, Martin Frost and all-star friends, Capuçon/Meyer, the brand-new Pacifica/McGill. Joan Enric Lluna joins in the generous romantic mindset, and his clarinet is placed front and centre. Occasionally, perhaps, a little too front-and-centre, so that he can drown out the other players when he’s not careful. Not a problem in Cano’s piece.

The production values are superb: great booklet, outstanding recorded sound by Judith Sherman, except for my caveat about the closeness of Lluna’s clarinet at times. It’s a realistic picture of the third or fourth row of a concert hall. This is certainly of more interest than your usual Brahms clarinet quintet recording, both for the lavish beauty of the playing and for the coupling. César Cano is a great talent, his work is a big contrast with Brahms’, and hearing it is more rewarding than getting yet another coupling with more Brahms or the Mozart quintet. An interesting new work meets an old favourite and doesn’t back down.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Oleg Ledeniov