SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

GRIEG: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27; BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115 – Joerg Widmann, clarinet/ Hagen Quartet – Myrios Classic

Intimate playing and gorgeous sonics combine to enshrine two visceral works from the chamber music medium in splendid emotional counterpoint.

Published on April 4, 2012

GRIEG: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27; BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115 – Joerg Widmann, clarinet/ Hagen Quartet – Myrios Classics multichannel SACD MYR 007, 75:44 [Distr. By Allegro] ****:

As part of the their thirty-year association, the Hagen Quartet decided to pair two (rec. June 2011) seemingly incongruous works, the 1878 Grieg String Quartet and the autumnal 1891 Clarinet Quintet of Johannes Brahms, a “posthumous” composition conceived by the composer after his formal “retirement” from creative work. Perhaps it is in the nature of personal crisis that the two works find some kinship, each expressing an  intimate passion on its own terms.

The inflamed nature of the Grieg Quartet has been common property ever since the Budapest Quartet inscribed it in the shellac era. I first heard it their later LP inscription on CBS, paired with the Sibelius Quartet. The Hagen bring its virtually symphonic writing to explosive heat from the outset of the Un poco Andante – Allegro molto ed agitato first movement. Grieg wrestled with the quartet medium, employing aspects of Franck’s cyclic format to impose a sense of thematic closure. The bristling quality of the homophonic writing, often in double and triple stops for the principals, finds only occasional relief in Grieg’s melodic repose, the tunes folk-like and modal by way of the ubiquitous Peer Gynt. Visceral cross rhythms and syncopations mark the interior movements. The gripping immediacy of the Hagen’s realization owes much to the DSD recording supervised by Stephan Cahen. Curiously, the work impressed the young Claude Debussy, who quotes elements from Grieg in his only official quartet in the same key.  [We’ve come quite a ways, from mono shellac 78s to hi-res multichannel SACDs…Ed.]

The two interior movements, Romanza: Andantino – Allegro agitato and Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato – Piu vivo e scherzando, lighten and clarify the texture, especially as the second movement incorporates a swirling waltz that soon evolves into a phantasm of superheated emotion. A spaciousness now separates the instruments, even as their lilt conveys much of Norwegian folk rhythms, like the halling and the springdans. The Hagen Quartet adds a touch of impish irony to the mercurial, limpid, often rasping mix. Lukas Hagen relishes his concertante violin solo excursions. What Grieg calls “Intermezzo” evinces a rustic, waspish Scherzo that alternates chromatic, symphonic sounds against individual pairings and colors.  The middle section definitely captures the rustic fiddle tradition of Norway, with each member of the ensemble’s strong, dervish element a potent contribution to an often attractive dissonance in the form of a country dance.  If Mendelssohn were an undeclared influence on Grieg’s Quartet, he certainly asserts himself in Grieg’s having proffered an Italian saltarello for his finale. Grieg’s evocative dance proves less polite and more individual than Mendelssohn’s contribution in the Italian Symphony. The bold modulations and strident sonority point to a completely new aesthetic, a furious synthesis of classical and folk idioms that the Hagen Quartet finds absolutely congenial to their especial virtuosity.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet, a product of a fateful encounter of Brahms with Meiningen Court Orchestra virtuoso Richard Muehlfeld, conveys a deep intimacy combined with those “gypsy” elements Brahms had imbibed from his youthful work with violinist Remenyi. The Hagen Quartet and clarinetist Widmann establish a resonantly romantic ethos in the first movement, although the spare vibrato testifies the more “classical” influence of the Reginald Kell/Adolf Busch Quartet performance inscribed some 75 years ago. The deliberate slowing down of the 6/8 B Minor Allegro seems to highlight its debts to both Mozart and Weber. An unearthly aura hangs over the B Major Adagio as Widmann and the Hagen realize it. Clarinet and first violin Lukas Hagen pair off, but the viola of Veronika Hagen makes its plaintive presence felt. Widmann shows off the expressive power he has in any range of his instrument, but in particular the hefty chalumeau deep register. The tremolo strings create an almost Lisztian effect against the clarinet, certainly an intensely fiery atmosphere Enescu much admired. When the opening melody reappears, it emanates a simplicity worthy of Schumann’s naïve folk ethos.

After the sustained gloom of the first two movements, the D Major Andantino provides some charmed light, its intermezzo quality reminiscent of the effect of the third movement of the C Minor Symphony. Clarinet and first violin again engage in dialogue, when suddenly the clarinet effect some liquid runs in a flurry of B Minor that recalls the emotional turmoil and eruptive passion of the String Quartets of Op. 51. We return to D Major but now in 2/4, like a chastened Prodigal Son. The final movement, Con Moto, applies the Brahms eternal device of theme and (five) variations. Cellist Clemens Hagen makes some profound points in his delineation of the first variation. Many of the techniques, here on an intimate scale, echo the Op. 56 Haydn Variations; the masterful clarinet Variation III allows Widmann a playful cadenza and some winsome dialogue. The last variant becomes a melancholy waltz, a spiritual rueckblick or backward-glance at the Viennese traditional that engendered the Brahms “ouroboros” sensibility out of Schubert and Beethoven. Like Dvorak’s Cello Concerto’s last movement, the principal and strings sigh tenderly at all they have surveyed, Paradise Lost.

—Gary Lemco

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