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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quintet in A major for clarinet and strings, K581 (1789) [32:28]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet, Op.115 (1891) [38:58]
Eli Eban (clarinet)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2019, St Stephens Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA

My last experience the Alexander String Quartet came in its rewarding meeting with Joyce Yang in the Mozart Piano Quartets (review). The unexaggerated excellence of this collaboration owed much to the essentials of clarity and refined warmth, and to obvious questions of resolved balance between the instruments. These questions resurface in another collaboration, this time with Eli Eban in what might yet become the clarinet coupling equivalent of the Bruch-and-Mendelssohn Violin Concerto diptych.

And if it’s Mozart and Brahms you want, then you will find that the Alexander Quartet and Eban provide readings of lyric warmth predicated on scrupulous and nuanced musicianship. Seek no further than the lyricism of the Mozart’s opening movement but focus especially on the calibration of the pizzicati figures and tonal lustre of all the instruments. Then there’s the lucid fluidity of the Larghetto, its eloquently phrased qualities held in just balance by the musicians, who are always phrasally generous but never prepared to sacrifice musical good manners to force the issue, emotively speaking. Thus, they are crisp in the ensuing Menuetto but as they show in the finale’s variations, note values, articulation, the establishment and emergence of counter-themes and all such necessary elements are privileged over superficial excitements. They dovetail with Eban most attractively here, and indeed throughout this disc whilst the clarinetist maintains full body of tone across his range and his warmly aerated vibrato is under excellent control.

The many salient features of the Mozart relate equally to the Brahms. Here too is a warmly conceived reading that marries eloquence with structural integrity. If the outer movements may seem just a touch relaxed in tempo, that’s a product of consistency of approach. Eban’s subtle variation in variation usage, not least in the slow movement, ensures a refined sense of colour, warmly vibrated, and is always audible. And the sonority of the accompanying figures, top to bottom, remains admirable. Here again, one finds pathos of expression but never sentimentality. Both finales - here and in the Mozart - end in variations and they are charmingly inflected and characterized in both cases.

To add to the pleasure there are fine booklet notes and an excellently judged recording.

Jonathan Woolf

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