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 strings, Op.115 (1891) [38:58]
Eli Eban (clarinet)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2019, St Stephens Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA
FOGHORN CLASSICS FCL2021 [71:26]
These two works are, of course, cornerstones of the repertoire for clarinet and string quartet. They have often been recorded together. I don’t propose, however, to undertake comparisons of this particular disc with other discs combining the same two works. Firstly, because it would result in an inappropriately lengthy review and, secondly, because I don’t currently have access to all the recordings it would be necessary to hear again. Suffice it to say that whether you don’t have a recording of both works or whether your shelves already carry one or more such discs – this new recording can safely be put on your shopping list without fear of disappointment.
Formed in 1981, the Alexander Quartet rightly holds a place in the very highest echelon of American string quartets. I believe (though I am open to correction) that the current make-up of the quartet – Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz (violins), Paul Yarborough (viola) and Sandy Wilson (cello) – has been unchanged for some ten years. The Alexander Quartet has long exhibited (as in their recordings of the complete Beethoven Quartets (review) and of Bartók and Kodály (review), both previously released on Foghorn) the virtues of consistently good judgement with regard to both tempo and dynamics, a seemingly almost intuitive sense of ensemble and a naturalness of sound and style which avoids extremes, without settling for the merely safe. For this recording they are joined by the distinguished clarinettist Eli Eban. I don’t know how often or how recently these five musicians have worked together, but in this recording their integration sounds perfect.
Even on my first listen to the disc, it was clear that this was the work of musicians with great respect for these two masterpieces, but who were not inhibited by that respect, not willing merely to play the notes politely and inexpressively. Whether in the supernal sublimity of the larghetto from Mozart’s quintet or the Hungarian folk rhythms of Brahms’ presto the music-making is irresistible and utterly convincing. Everywhere, indeed, there is an unforced dignity and a natural weight of emotion to the playing. I hope it is not too fanciful to say that this is the kind of playing which sounds as natural as breathing (but is obviously grounded in years of hard work).
In his excellent booklet notes, Eric Bromberger points to a number of parallels between the two works: “both were written late in their creators’ lives, both were inspired by contact with a particular clarinettist, and both beautifully integrate the quite different sonorities of clarinet and string quartet.” To gloss, briefly, Bromberger’s observations, the Mozart Quintet was written in 1789 (two years before the composer’s death) and ‘his’ clarinettist was Anton Stadler; Brahms wrote his quintet in 1891 (six years before his death) and his clarinet ‘muse’ was Richard Mühlfeld (Brahms referred to him as “my dear nightingale”). One might add to the list of parallels the fact that each work closes, somewhat unconventionally, with a variation movement -this ‘parallel’ may exist because Brahms was consciously alluding to Mozart’s work. The similarity in the way that the two quintets open would seem to support this suggestion – each first movement opens with the initial theme stated in full by the quartet, before the clarinet enters, in each case “ris[ing] from the depths”, as Bromberger puts it).
The Mozart quintet can sound unrelievedly melancholy, with its dominant air of the wistful, even mournful. But this performance finds loci of good humour – as in parts of the Menuetto and much of the Allegretto con Variazioni, (though the discontented interjections of the viola in the third variation, and of the clarinet and violin in the fifth, are still given their full weight). Throughout the predominantly autumnal mood of the Brahms Quintet, the tonal warmth of Eban’s clarinet and the shine on the strings of the Alexander Quartet seem both to evoke memories of summers gone and to offer hope of springs to come.
These are, in short, magnificent readings (in beautiful sound) of two of the greatest works of chamber music. Both seem, in different but related ways, to commemorate endings both personal and more universal, and to articulate hopes of redemption and new beginnings.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf