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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115 [38:51]
Houtaf KHOURY (b. 1967)
Gardens of Love [14:15]
Dmitri Ashkenazy (clarinet)
Robin Sharp, Mechthild Karkow (violins), Jennifer Anschel (viola), Gundula Leitner (cello)
rec. 2019, Theātre Saint Bonnet, Bourges, France

This is a showcase for the latest member of the Ashkenazy family to find international fame as a musician, Dmitri, who, following the wise dictum of not following in his father’s footsteps, has turned his back on the piano and conducting (where Vladimir’s reputation seems unassailable) and made a very fine international reputation in his own right as a clarinettist. Marking his 50th birthday, he pulled together a team of highly distinguished instrumentalists to record the Brahms Quintet, and brought in as a filler to this somewhat meagre-length CD, a single-movement work for clarinet and string quartet by the Lebanese composer, Houtaf Khoury.

Ashkenazy clearly has a strong affection for Khoury’s music, and in 2017 the composer wrote a Sonata for clarinet and piano specially for him. Gardens of Love dates back to 2009 and was written for the Catalan clarinettist Joan Enric Lluna, although Ashkenazy seems to have made the work very much his own. In a thin booklet note, Khoury tells us that the work is “a reflection of the tensions between past and future”, and with its curious mix of sweet and sour harmonies, a long-breathed but oddly elusive clarinet melodic line, and the slowly entwining textures from the string quartet, it seems to do exactly what the composer suggests. It is a haunting, at times moody work, but is rather higher on atmosphere than musical substance.

We are told that the Brahms Quintet is one of Ashkenazy’s favourite works; although I know of very few clarinettists who would not say the same thing - it is one of the peaks in their sparsely populated repertory. This is a suitably affectionate performance, the strings giving Ashkenazy a fervent introduction and allowing him to soar upwards through that gloriously eloquent opening theme in the first movement, providing a rich, velvety cushion on which he can expound with complete ease the luxurious line of the slow movement (and what a wonderful response from Robin Sharp when he takes over the theme), providing a clear, no-nonsense momentum for a particularly well-paced third movement andantino and adding plenty of nervous energy for the Presto second section, and guiding the way gracefully through the final movement’s theme and variations.

All in all, this is a performance which is polished, highly fluent and with tempi particularly well chosen, paying affectionate tribute to the music and realising the score in precise detail. Whether it fully exudes the spirit of late Brahms is another matter, but there again, very few recorded performances fully convince in this respect.

Marc Rochester

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