Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 [38:46]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Clarinet Quintet [36:02]
Sharon Kam (clarinet), Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Ulrike-Anima Mathé (violin), Volker Jacobsen (viola), Gustav Rivinius (cello)
rec. 17-19 October 2014 (Brahms), 8-10 July 2015 (Reger), Beethovensaal, Hannover Congress Centrum, Hannover, Germany
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300643BC [74:48]

The clarinet quintets by Brahms and Reger make a perfect coupling, so it’s surprising that nobody’s ever done it before, as far as I can tell. Indeed, Max Reger’s clarinet quintet is a rarity on disc, with ArkivMusic listing just ten recordings, including this one. But the caliber of recording artists attracted to this piece is testament to its quality: two principal clarinetists from the Berlin Philharmonic (Wenzel Fuchs on Naxos and Karl Leister on DG) and a former principal in the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Eduard Brunner on Tudor).

Now in steps the noted soloist Sharon Kam, with a specially-assembled group of friends and partners. This is actually Sharon Kam’s second recording of the Brahms clarinet quintet, after a 2012 recording with the Jerusalem Quartet (review); her brother is that ensemble’s violist.

This performance is a fascinating, appropriately Brahmsian combination of relaxed lyricism and kinetic power. The opening movement, for instance, builds considerable momentum over its first two minutes, and continues in a push-and-pull of the unique drama of the composer’s late style. Truth be told, there are many excellent performances of this work, and here we have another, but if you already have a few recordings of the Brahms, the main attraction of the disc will be the less common work by Max Reger.

The Reger quintet is best seen as a companion piece to the Brahms. Max Reger took after the Brahmsian example a little too closely over his career; the piano concerto is like Brahms’s First Concerto, but tuneless and inferior. This piece is like Brahms’s clarinet quintet, but inferior, too. But that inferiority is because the Brahms work is one of the greatest masterworks. Reger’s is actually very good, one of his finest moments as a composer.

One reason for that is its subtlety. Reger understood that melody was not his strength; he compensates by developing his ideas well, and by creating a series of great atmospheric moments for the performers. The opening has a once-upon-a-time quality; the scherzo deserves special praise as a gentle, subtle dance with an especially charming waltz trio.

The performances bristle with life and personality. Sharon Kam deliberately chose to bring together a group of soloists, rather than a pre-existing quartet, and the result is five players with strong personalities, engaged in a continual conversation. They sound as if they’ve been playing together for years, and in fact they have. All that I should add in addition is that Max Reger is as expert in writing for these five instruments as Brahms, and the recorded sound is flawlessly clear. The booklet is glued to the back of the digipak CD case, if that is important to you. A lossless download is available on eClassical; either way, if you haven’t encountered Max Reger’s chamber music, this is a good introduction. Next try his viola music, performed by Nobuko Imai on BIS.

Brian Reinhart

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