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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115 [37:46]
Six Songs for clarinet and piano (arr. Fröst) [15:35]
Clarinet Trio in A minor, op.114 [24:33]
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
Janine Jansen, Boris Brovtsyn (violins), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Torleif Thedéen (cello), Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. February 2013 (Quintet), November 2013 (Songs), Grünewaldsalen, Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS BIS-2063 SACD [78:55]

Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet of 1891 is one of his very greatest works. It is of truly symphonic proportions, being in four movements and nearly 40 minutes’ duration, so it is right and natural that it is the centre of gravity of this issue. The final tracks contain the work that occupies the next opus number in Brahms’ output, the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. In between we have six famous Brahms songs, arranged by the Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst, who is the soloist on this disc.

Fröst is joined by some distinguished musicians, the violinist Janine Jansen being the best-known among them. The performances are lovingly prepared, and show every sign of being considered very carefully in every aspect.

The disappointment for me concerns Fröst’s own playing; technically - that is in terms of his command of the instrument in the many demanding passages, especially in the quintet – he is highly impressive and fluent. Yet I find his tone, especially the fluttering vibrato that appears at ‘tender’ moments, difficult to live with, especially so as his instrument is so ubiquitous on all tracks. Then in the higher register, during loud passages, an unpleasant edge comes into the sound; this may be partly a result of the recorded balance, I’m not sure but it’s a real barrier to the enjoyment of the music.

There is also something about the actual character of the clarinet that affects this CD. I became aware as I listened what a lugubrious, sulky sound it is; very beautiful and I don’t hesitate to say that I love the clarinet in its rightful musical place but listening to this CD was a bit like being locked in a room with a gloomy teenager for seventy minutes or so. Maybe a string quartet or piano quintet would have enlivened the programme? I’m aware that this could just be me; critics are never willing enough to own up to their own personal prejudices, let alone their state of mind at the time of listening. So let it just be said that there is, despite all the above, a very high level of musicianship on show here, and the music is magnificent, even if the Trio is not a masterpiece of the same distinction as the quintet.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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