BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115; Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 – Jon Nakamatsu, piano/ Jon Manasse, clarinet/ Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807558, 79:13 *****: 
While the Tokyo Quartet seems to be going stronger than ever in its series of recent recordings for Harmonia mundi (getting generally superb engineering support helps), the players have outdone themselves on the current Brahms disc. This is by no means a common coupling either, and the interesting contrasts offered by these two works from very different points in Brahms’s career are enlightening. It also turns out to be a very generous coupling at almost eighty minutes’ duration—excellent value in every way.
The great Clarinet Quintet of 1891 is one of the four works that resulted from Brahms’s collaboration with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist the Meiningen Court Orchestra, the others being the Clarinet Trio and the two Clarinet Sonatas. For me, of these four works the Quintet has far and away the greatest melodic distinction as well as emotional depth and integration. While it is one of those pieces of Brahms’s late years that has earned the name autumnal, it seems even more tinged with a sad nostalgia verging on tragic reflection that seems to ask a question about what might have been. Knowing both Brahms’s vast achievements and sad losses and personal sacrifices, it’s hard not to read a certain autobiography into the work. Certainly, while this Quintet shares some features with the Fourth Symphony—a first movement that alternates between pained expression and noble gesture, a variations-form finale that ends that passes through a wide emotional ambit before ending on a conclusion with tragic overtones—the symphony is a public statement and so doesn’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as the Quintet does.
One pitfall in performing the Quintet is making the opening melody and its recurrences sound too tender: that air of quiet, dignified pain should lurk behind the surface from the start. The Tokyo and clarinetist Jon Manasse capture the flavor of the work from the beginning and then manage to create a movement of large emotional contrasts, from the quiet opening to the dark explosions that follow to the animated yet wistful contours of the second melody. The quiet resignation of the final chords is perfectly rendered.
I find the other movements just as satisfying: the quietly reflective second movement with its undercurrent of unhappy memory; the scherzo, which returns subtly to the restrained buoyancy of the second subject of the opening; and the finale, which draws on one of Brahms’s most favored forms: theme and variations. The variations seem to proceed in the usual fashion—musical changes rung on an original theme—but then the quiet opening of the Quintet returns, now slowed down and with an even darker emphasis. The last measures are tragic but seemingly of the restrained, Classical variety that Schubert tried to capture in his Fourth Symphony, “Tragic.” This is not demonstrative tragedy of the stage variety; this is the tragic record of one heart speaking to another (the listener), or so it seems.
The interpretation by the Tokyo and Manasse is about as emotionally complex and satisfying as I’ve heard, and I doubt the beauty of the playing has been surpassed, or if it has, I haven’t heard evidence in concert or on recording.
Go back almost thirty years, to 1864 and the creation of the Piano Quintet, and you enter the creative world of the still-young Brahms (aged thirty-one). We can grant him the license to create a work in the vein of the young Romantic firebrand (or Classical-Romantic firebrand, as he’s usually classified); the Quintet is much more flamboyant and even noisy in its declamations. I must say I find the grinding double stops throughout the scherzo, and especially in the coda, downright ugly, and for no compelling artistic reason. And the finale’s intensity seems a bit overwrought and insincere. Though this is one of Brahms’s most cherished works, I have to confess it’s never been one of my favorites. Its melodies are often grand and/or gorgeous, its architecture unfailing, as you’d expect from Brahms. And the first movement strikes me as a near-perfect musical expression. Yet the Quintet’s tragic mien seems to be of the public variety that I mentioned in connection with the Fourth Symphony. The Piano Quintet has a tragic intensity about it that at times seems outsized and doesn’t quite ring true, especially compared to the more personal statement found in the Clarinet Quintet or in a much earlier work that Brahms successfully revised as his Opus 60—the Piano Quartet No. 3.
Be that as it may, this is another superb performance by the Tokyo, here joined by the excellent Jon Nakamatsu. I can find nothing to quibble with here and in fact have enjoyed the work more than I have on many other hearings. Maybe further acquaintance with this performance will finally make me a convert! As I listen again, I’m certainly taken by that lovely slow movement.
The SACD recording from Sauder College in Goshen, Indiana, is even finer than the last Tokyo Quartet I sampled, the Schubert String Quintet and Quartettsatz, also in surround sound. The recording holds the players at a respectful remove but displays a striking dynamic range and an excellent sense of airiness and spread, which seems to extend beyond the front speakers in a generous semicircle. Most collectors will have versions of these masterworks on their shelves; still, the current release seems to me an almost mandatory purchase for any Brahms lover.
—Lee Passarella