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Quasi Morendo
Salvatore SCIARRINO (b. 1947)
Let Me Die Before I Wake (1982) [10:00]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor op. 115 (1891) [39:30]
Gérard PESSON (b. 1958)
Nebenstück (1998) [8:45]
Rete Bieri (clarinet)
rec. 2016, RSI Studio Zürich
ECM NEW SERIES 2557 [58:15]

This programme sees Brahms’s late chamber work, the Quintet in B minor op. 115 for clarinet and string quartet, with what the booklet notes describe as a prologue and epilogue. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake is a remarkable solo for clarinet, in which overtones emerge from silence, “with an extremely high, now and then almost whistling chorale-like melody and a low counter-movement that sounds sometimes like broken clockwork, sometimes only like a dark shadow of the upper tones.” Bieri holds with the mystery both in the techniques and musical qualities of this introverted piece, “it’s mysterious music and has to be mysterious,” both to the player and the listener.

The epilogue here follows on from Brahms’s mournful finale and is related to Brahms’s Ballade Op. 10 No. 4 for piano. Nebenstück approaches being an arrangement of this piece, but one that has become “changed and estranged… The music sounds as if from behind a wall, muted, smeared with noise, whispering, breathing…” The whole piece is played, but as if recalled from imperfect and distant memory, its recognisable melodic shapes and harmonies emerging reluctantly.

Brahms intended to retire as a composer in 1890 at the age of 57, but his acquaintance with clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld reinvigorated the creative urge, and the Op. 115 quintet is one of a series of late works for the instrument. As Roman Brotbeck points out in his booklet notes, the Clarinet Quintet “is a swan song, a finale; gestures of closure dominate. The melancholy themes lose themselves; nothing develops anymore but rather is dismantled, in a morendo composed out over four movements.” The transparency of this quintet can be accounted for in its economy of means, its thematic material austere of content, the accompaniment balanced in this through an absence of the intensity that can clog the textures of some of his earlier chamber music.

Reto Bieri allows himself some subtle vibrato here and there in the performance, as if acknowledging period character. The players of Meta4 have an excellent feel for dynamics, maintaining that essentially quiet and almost secretive quality from which Brahms’s theatrical climaxes can emerge and recede to striking effect. It may be in part due to the nature of the other works that frame the quintet, but there is an introvert quality to this performance that I admire greatly, though others may not agree. By way of contrast, Jon Manasse with the Tokyo String Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (review) is quite a bit more heart-on-sleeve, more so on account of the greater intensity of vibrato given to the music by the quartet rather than as an over-the-top account in general, but hinting as much at unrequited passions as at the autumnal sentiments of a composer in his senior years.

Reto Bieri and Meta4 emphasise the fragility of this music as alluded to in the booklet, by no means pulling punches, but creating a rather special and memorable atmosphere while maintaining a convincing alliance with Brahms’s idiom. That final Con moto movement is as involving and moving as you could ask for, by no means wallowing in emotional extremes but drawing us into a world of pure music that seems to have as much an intimate function, one-to-one with the composer in his exploration of those variations as it would ever have its place in a packed concert hall. With a fine recording from ECM, this intriguingly framed canvas is one that will keep you engaged and thoughtful for years to come.

Dominy Clements
Meta4: Antti Tikkanen, Minna Pensola (violin), Atte Kilpelänen (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacke (violoncello)

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