BRAHMS: Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 115 (arr. Brahms for solo viola and string quartet); Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A Minor, Op. 114 (arr. Brahms for viola, cello, and piano) – Ronald Gorevic, viola / Eric Lewis, violin / Roy Lewis, violin / John Dexter, viola / Matthias Nagele, cello / Judith Gordon, piano – Centaur CRC 3051, 55:50 [Distr. by Naxos] **:
Clarinetists rightly look on the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with a proprietary air. One of the finest works in their repertoire, it is often thought of as Brahms’ finest chamber compositions, which is saying much. That Brahms himself arranged the piece for viola and string quartet hasn’t apparently given it much currency even among violists. I’ve never run into it on a concert program or a recording. Having heard the current performance, I think I understand why.
The story of the Quintet’s genesis, the result of Brahms’ friendship with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist the Meiningen Court Orchestra, is well known. Brahms was on the verge of retiring from music when Mühlfeld’s artistry gave him a new lease on creative life, inspiring the Quintet, the Clarinet Trio, and the two Clarinet Sonatas. Tinged with an air of reflective melancholy, these are the works that come to mind first when we think of the autumnal glory of late Brahms.
Arranged for viola, the Quintet especially falls far short of this glory. Whereas the timbre of the clarinet helps it register forcefully against both the upper and lower strings, the solo viola, unless it is indeed singing its few rapturous solos, fails to stand apart from its companion viola in the ensemble. The work doesn’t sound as distinctive or “right” as the other two String Quintets (Op. 88 and 111) of Brahms.
At least in the arrangement of the Clarinet Trio, the viola emerges as an individual voice and holds its own much better against cello and piano. It’s interesting to hear, and you may want to hear it more than once. But if you’re a fancier of the Trio, you’ll most likely return to its incarnation for clarinet, cello, and piano.
Even if the arrangement of the Quintet were more appealing, it would need better advocacy than it receives in the current performance. While Ronald Gorevic is a fine player—with a fruity, burnished tone that is as indulgent as a warm bath—the performance as a whole is a real letdown. It stresses the melancholy at the expense of other, competing emotions and rarely soars, plodding along at tempos that seem slower than they really are because there are so few emotional high points. And if perhaps violinist Eric Lewis were able to play off the more piquant tones of the clarinet, his cloying tone wouldn’t be quite so irksome. But exposed as he is, his playing emphasizes the air of enervated melancholy that hangs over the whole performance.
As I say, the performance of the Trio is stronger and worth hearing, at least once or twice. But in the company of such an unfortunate reading—and arrangement—as that of the Quintet, this is mostly a recording to miss.
– Lee Passarella
Budapest Quartet Plays Brahms – String Quartets Nos. 2, 3; String Sextet No. 2; String Quintets Nos. 1, 2 – Pristine Audio
Another historic release from Pristine — Brahms, Budapest