BRAHMS: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51 No. 2; Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115 – Sharon Kam, clarinet/ Jerusalem Q. – Harmonia mundi HMC 902152, 71:12 ****:
Brahms, that sternest of self-critics, alleged that he had consigned twenty string quartets to the fire before he composed one he could in all conscience put his name to. For me, though, Brahms had one more quartet to write before he achieved the perfection he had been seeking. The Opus 51 No. 1 Quartet may be the favorite of many Brahmsians because of its overt drama and near symphonic sweep (in fact, it’s been arranged for string orchestra—wrongheadedly, in my opinion), Brahms’s Second Quartet is my clear favorite among the three. Perhaps this has to do with the long gestation period and unremitting grief that the First Quartet seemed to cause. Apparently, Brahms’s friend the great violinist Joseph Joachim alluded to this quartet as giving the composer great difficulty way back in 1865—eight years before it was finally published. The more relaxed Second Quartet didn’t cause him quite so much grief, but apparently it, too, languished for several years before Brahms finally completed both works during the summer of 1873 in the Bavarian resort town named Tutzing at a time of year and place that seemed to produce some of his most satisfying work.
The Second Quartet roughly bears the same relationship to the First as the Second Symphony does to the Second. The Second is more lyrical, more spontaneous, with a more pastoral feel and gait, from the Allegro non troppo opening to the Quasi minuetto – moderato third movement, an intermezzo reminiscent of the comparable movement in the Second Symphony. And as with the symphony, the Quartet really springs to passionate life only in the finale, a fiery Hungarian-style movement that recalls the finales of the First Piano Quartet and Violin Concerto. In his notes to this recording, Roman Hinke wonders if this isn’t a subtle tribute to Joachim, with whom Brahms had had a recent falling out. Not so subtle, then, would be the fact that Brahms based the first theme of the quartet on the sequence of notes A-F-A-E, which encapsulates Joachim’s musical motto FAE, Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”). As with many of Brahms’s musical gestures, this is a remembrance of happier times, when he, Schumann, and Schumann’s young pupil Albert Dietrich divvied up the responsibilities for writing a violin sonata dedicated to Joachim and which became known as the FAE Sonata.
The quartet has so many musical felicities that at first hearing (or even nth hearing) the combination of tight motivic control and a flexible, organic approach to melodic writing and harmony is not readily apparently—another reason, I guess, that I prefer this work to the First Quartet, where Brahms seems consciously to be striving for a grand statement. The Jerusalem Quartet captures the contrasting moods in the work, both the lyrical and the feisty, and along the way produces some lovely sounds plus fine ensemble playing. There’s always room for another recording of this gracious work.
Brahms’s Clarinet Quartet is by far the finest fruit of the composer’s acquaintanceship with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist the Meiningen Court Orchestra, whom Brahms dubbed Fräulein Klarinette for his sweet-toned playing. The air of solemn reflection that darkens, especially in the final pages, to the near-tragic invites a range of approaches, but many of the recordings I’ve heard lately seem to (double) underscore the quiet sadness of the piece. In fact, I think that Sharon Kam and the Jerusalem might just lay it on a bit too thick at the beginning; the opening is close to lugubrious, and there’s enough obvious sobriety about the piece without the need to overplay it. In comparing rival versions, I was surprised to note how much faster Gervase de Peyer and the Melos Quartet (EMI) take the outer movements in their classic recording of the work.
As I say, there are a number of different ways to approach the piece, and if I favor slightly faster tempi as opposed to the ones that Kam and the Jerusalem choose, at least in the first movement, I can’t possibly complain about the playing. Kam’s tone is perfectly round, dark, and fulsome, while the Jerusalem prove the perfect foil, with the lean, clean sound it projects. Plus, the middle movements are just about perfect in execution, the Adagio especially heartfelt. Except for that emotionally overloaded opening and maybe a bit too much rubato in Variation IV of the finale, the players let the music plead its own case, as indeed they should. Those dark final pages, which echo the first theme of the Quintet, are beautifully done. So given the unusual and unusually satisfying pairing of these two works in performances that have few flaws, many virtues, this is a disc worth considering by all committed Brahmsians.