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Mozart Brahms
Clarinet Quintets

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op 115 [37:38]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Clarinet Trio in D minor Op 3 [29:37]
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
John Lenehan (piano)
Michelangelo String Quartet
rec. 2013, Wyastone Leys, UK

Selected Comparisons – Brahms Clarinet Quintet
Reginald Kell, Busch Quartet (1937), Testament SBT1001
David Oppenheim, Budapest Quartet (1961), CBS MPK45553

It’s surprising that Emma Johnson hadn’t tackled this work on disc before, but I’m very glad to have caught up with it eventually, especially as the Zemlinsky is such an under-recorded gem.

What’s special is the sonance, the way the Michelangelos fine down their playing to suit Johnson’s and vice versa. Tempi are nicely judged and looking at a couple of historic comparisons, there has been a consistent relaxation of tempi over the decades. Emma Johnson’s insightful essay presses the points of human contact Brahms stood back from, perfecting in art as he couldn’t in life. Johnson playfully writes: ‘if…the opening… has the effect of curtains pulled back from the strings to reveal a clarinettist prima donna, in reality the drama casts the clarinet as first amongst equals.’

This plays out in a mesmerisingly long opening Allegro movement, quite different from the regretful fleetness of Kell, who cuts out an exposition (he comes in at 8:04!) or Oppenheim with the wiry Budapests at an unsentimental 10:20. The famed CBS sonic dryness ensured no-one would linger. Things thereafter are less extreme, but it’s clear that tonal exploration slows things down. No-one’s complaining.

It’s worth following Johnson’s approach. Nimbus sound can be generous, but this is well-focused to bring out the soft grain already there, the pulsing strings – viola, then cello intertwining with the utmost clarity. It works out particularly in the Adagio-Pił lento. You can see here why Johnson’s tempi are unhurried yet in fact work out faster than some. The textural interplay is what comes out perhaps in a work where texture is gesture and expression below the gorgeous autumnal-seeming melodies.

As for the Andantino, Johnson adds: ‘Brahms’ take on Hungarian folk music achieves its most sublime expression, the strings at times sounding like a cembalon [cimbalom], that distinctive zither-like folk instrument, while the clarinet metamorphoses into a gypsy musician casting roulade of notes.’ Johnson has seized the insight, though there have been even edgier performances of this. What Johnson brings is a conscious swing, a tangy nudge against the strings to bring this out.

The final Con moto is still devastating, as if life ebbs out more surely than at the end of Strauss’s slightly earlier Don Juan. There are again the swing and confidence, the consolatory smile at the opening. Johnson and the Michelangelos manage to nudge this softly to tragedy or that bleak ‘sad and angry consolation’ as the poet Geoffrey Hill once put it.

For there is in the higher reaches of the clarinet a soft-grained wail of despair, also afraid to know itself. Even as the entwined solidarity seems to unfold a last benediction, a touch of human warmth. The team here take it about 20 seconds longer than the Oppenheim/Budapests, whilst Kell and the Busch push it to a terse 8:05.

The chamber gradations, the astonishing intimacy and fresh sonority this performance brings make it a natural acquisition to Brahmsians. You won’t hear those textures separate and conjoin so revealingly elsewhere.

Whilst it would have been right to have the Brahms Clarinet Trio, Op 114, no-one will complain when they hear this Brahmsian Clarinet Trio which Zemlinsky took in 1895 to Brahms, who immediately pronounced his delight. One can see why. It starts in the Allegro man non troppo – Andante like Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 2; its melody, returning several times, is easily good enough to stand comparison as first-rate Brahms. It’s memorable and haunting.

Thereafter, one feels Zemlinsky develops fast as a composer and the Brahms element recedes a little. The Andante – Poco mosso con fantasia is more fascinating, less immediately satisfying. The easy Brahmsian prodigy has given way to chromatic sideslips, though there is a Brahmsian melody there, underpinning solid mahogany when all the Wagnerian dressing has vanished like William Morris wallpaper.

And here’s another reason Johnson invoked the cimbalom. It’s back. The final Allegro, both tuneful and folksy within a Brahms nimbus – particularly the clarinet – is perky and memorable. Though brief, it contains the profundity Zemlinsky discovered in himself and in this work. There’s almost a moto perpetuo feel, as the work ends in a whisper.

The final chords try to recall the late 19th century, but we’re nudging Mahler territory: clear-cut, off-kilter rhythms and tunes, a folk idiom sharpening itself. Zemlinsky’s journey from his early master was beginning as his master’s life ended.

There’s unlikely to be such a fine performance of the Zemlinsky for years, though it deserves many. It’s a great reason to buy this disc for the trio alone. However, though there are recent Brahms Clarinet Quintets out there I’ve not heard, this is sovereign and a natural successor to the great British clarinet tradition; indeed, to most other clarinetists who’ve committed this work to disc. Its special qualities demand a hearing.

Simon Jenner

Previous review: Ralph Moore (Recording of the Month)

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