British Clarinet Quintets
Sir Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)
Clarinet Quintet in G major (1913) [24:38]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor, Op. 10 (1895) [31:41]
Richard WALTHEW (1872-1951)
A short Quintet in E flat major (1917-18) [16:30]
Stephan Siegenthaler (clarinet)
Leipzig String Quartet
rec. Gemeindesaal Pauluskirche Zehlendorf, Berlin, December 2013
CPO 777 905-2 [72:54]
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor apparently wrote his Clarinet Quintet as an answer to a challenge. His teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Villiers Stanford, "maintained that no composer could write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet," according to Michael Bryant's programme note. This score was Coleridge-Taylor's response. Bryant claims that it "exhibit[s], to some extent, the influence of Dvořák" - presumably instead of Brahms - but this sounds to me like a reach: only a few rhythmic details, notably the accents in the minor-mode Finale, suggest this. Some harmonies in the first movement are modal, but not particularly Slavic; the Scherzo's nudging dotted figures recall Elgar's agitated scherzos. Otherwise, the style is post-Brahms all the way, with broad, lyrical themes and, in the first-movement development, a nice rhythmic interplay among the parts.

Brahms, too, is clearly the main influence on Sir Arthur Somervell's lyrical G major Quintet, which makes extensive use of the clarinet's dark-toned chalumeau register. The marked accents in the Intermezzo and the Finale's hearty, forthright stride also suggest Dvořák - more strongly, in fact, than Coleridge-Taylor's ostensible tribute.

Richard Walthew's single-movement A short Quintet, a rare quintet written for the B-flat rather than the A instrument, follows similar patterns in the opening Allegro amabile, with its diatonic harmonies and Brahmsian melodic contours. The rest of the piece, however, breaks into more forward, harmonically ambivalent territory. The Lento con moto sounds oddly spare, exploratory in nature rather than warm or rich, while the strings provide a distinctly twentieth century rhythmic propulsion to the closing Allegro ma non troppo.

It's good to hear Central European players, rather than the customary British practitioners, in this kind of repertoire, as they highlight distinctive interpretive and tonal aspects of the writing. Clarinetist Stephan Siegenthaler produces a lovely, soft-grained tone that particularly suits the frequent expressive lines in the low register, and doesn't unduly call attention to itself as it ascends. There are comparatively few of the virtuoso flourishes one might expect; in this music, the clarinet is primus inter pares, not a featured soloist - but, where they do occur, he handles them deftly.

The Leipzig String Quartet has a rather serious demeanour: their formality in Somervell's introduction, for example, underscores its Brahmsian undertones. Their execution is consistently handsome, providing incisiveness and lyricism as needed; the high chords shimmer at the start of Coleridge-Taylor's Larghetto affetuoso.

The sound is basically excellent, though Siegenthaler is miked a shade too closely. Nonetheless, the album merits wholehearted praise.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

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