Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115 (1891) [37:40]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Clarinet Trio in D minor, op. 3 (1896) [29:34]
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
John Lenehan (piano)
Michelangelo Quartet
rec. 2013, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK. DDD

When I have wanted to hear this Brahms Quintet, I have for years turned to the digital recording from 1987 on IMP PCD883 by the eminent clarinettist Keith Puddy with the Delmé Quartet. The Quintet was coupled with a compelling Dvorak string quartet No. 12. This new recording from Nimbus is in very much the same league in terms of both artistry and sound. For some listeners it also presents the advantage of being paired with a beautiful performance of a rarer work by Brahms’ protégé Zemlinsky.

Emma Johnson is a most excellent soloist who has had a highly successful career since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition as long ago as 1984. She has a lovely, mellow tone and blends ideally with the quartet in a perfectly balanced recording which allows the gentle pulsing of the viola and cello to emerge clearly beneath the melodic line in the Adagio. They take that movement a little more briskly than Puddy, perhaps to avoid any connotations of sentimentality which can gather around such familiar and ripely Romantic music. On the other hand, they never abandon the requisite singing quality in their phrasing.

As indicated in her sensitive and informative notes, Johnson and the Michelangelo really emphasise the wild, Hungarian quality of the central “Più lento” section: “the strings at times sounding like a [cimbalom], that distinctive zither-like folk instrument, while the clarinet metamorphosises into a gypsy musician casting roulades of notes.” I couldn’t put it better myself, so I won’t try.

The influence of Brahms over Zemlinsky in the opening “Allegro” of his Trio is very obvious. This can be felt especially in the impulsive, headlong dynamism of the piano line which vies with the rhapsodic clarinet. The cello takes a back seat to this passionate dialogue.

That dialogue continues in the sensuous Andante but then the cello comes to the fore. Johnson’s legato is a dream and she blends the caramel lower register of her instrument with the burring of the cello as they harmonise in thirds and fifths in a richly retrospective love theme. This is followed by another “Hungarian” episode in the form of a “fantasia” before the return to the serenity of the love music. The beauty and depth of the sound provided by the Nimbus engineers is especially in evidence here.

The brief, final “Allegro” dances restlessly and starts to look forward to a more modern Viennese style in a freer, more “floating” manner. The players interweave magically. It is hard to imagine a more musical recording of two such deeply satisfying works, ideally paired here.

As a footnote, no matter how many times I see a Klimt painting used as cover artwork I still enjoy it both for its intrinsic beauty and for its aptness to the music it adorns.
Ralph Moore
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