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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115 (1891) [41:20]
Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux for flute and clarinet (1985) [5:07]
Clarinet Quintet (2007) [13:08]
Phoenix Ensemble (Mark Lieb (clarinet), Anna Urreyu (flute), Igor Pikoyzen and Regi Papa (violins), Katarzyna Bryla (viola in Brahms), Colin Brookes (viola in Carter), Alice Yoo (cello in Brahms), Caleb von der Swoogh (cello in Carter))
rec. 2017/2018, Dreamflower Studios, Bronxville, New York

The Phoenix Ensemble is a mixed-instrument group based in New York. They have a particular interest in in contemporary music and also in reaching out to schools and disadvantaged communities. Their previous recordings have included Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman (review), among others. Their founder and presiding spirit is the clarinettist Mark Lieb, and this disc is, among other things, a showcase for his talents. You can read more about the Phoenix Ensemble here.

Brahms had thought of retiring after completing his string quintet Op. 111, but changed his mind on hearing the playing of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. For him he wrote four works: the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120, and this quintet, the finest of the four and one of Brahms’s most beautiful chamber works. All four are core repertoire for clarinettists, so it not unreasonable for Lieb to want to set down his own version. The string players here are not listed as a regular quartet, but are, presumably, regular members of the Phoenix Ensemble. They certainly sound as if they are used to playing together and do not sound like an ad hoc quartet assembled just for this occasion. Lieb himself has a lovely tone, woody in the lower register and sweet in the higher one. At the very top there is a hint of shrillness in his tone, but that tends to be a characteristic of the instrument. He is as nimble and agile as you could wish in the fast passages and plays the Zigeuner passages in the slow movement with a fine flourish. The playing of the whole ensemble is expressive and idiomatic, with just a little leaning on the first note of a phrase in the Viennese fashion, but nothing like the schmaltzy playing I have heard in this work – though I can enjoy that too.

Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux was written to honour Pierre Boulez on his sixtieth birthday. In it we find his characteristic use of polyrhythms, in which the two instruments are held together by a common pulse but never actually play together in the traditional sense. That sounds complicated, but the piece. like much Carter, is easy to listen to though not necessarily easy to follow. He has obviously heard Varèse’s 1936 flute piece Density 21.5, as has nearly everyone who has written for flute since it was written, but Carter is his own man, and this is a playful work.

His Clarinet Quintet is a late work. The presiding idea to set the clarinet in contrast to the strings, whereas Brahms’s characteristic technique is to insert the clarinet into the string texture to bring out both how like and how unlike the string instruments it is. There are five short movements, all at different speeds, but which play continuously. Much of the piece is cheerful and perky but there is some expressive writing in the middle and an emotional finale. As with Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux, this is easy to enjoy. Carter was obviously fond of writing for the clarinet because he went on to write a clarinet concerto and a bass clarinet concertino.

The playing in the Carter quintet is assured and confident, as one would expect from contemporary music specialists. This is also a slightly different team from that in the Brahms. I have no complaints about the recording. The disc is housed in a cardboard sleeve rather than a jewel case and the booklet notes, in English only, are printed reversed out (white lettering on a dark ground), which does not make for easy reading.

There are, of course, many alternative recordings of the Brahms, and those looking primarily for a recording of that are likely to prefer a coupling with the Mozart quintet or with more Brahms. Or for a very Viennese view of Brahms with some enterprising couplings try Andreas Ottensamer (review). Of the Carter works Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux is included on a Boulez disc from Erato which also has the Oboe Concerto and the song cycle A Mirror on which to Dwell, while the Clarinet Quintet is in volume 8 of Bridge’s valuable Carter compilations. But there is always room for other views. If the programme suits, don’t hesitate.

Stephen Barber

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