Ewald Straesser : Chamber Music for Clarinet – Berolina Ensemble – MDG SACD 948 2199-6 – 77:11 – 9/21 *****
(Frederike Roth: clarinet)
In the first two decades of the 20th century there were so many composers of boldly inventive minds, subverting, expanding, twisting the long standing Common Practice of tonality in Classical Music that we forget that there was also a prolongation of the 19th century. Many composers simply carried on with the language of Brahms and wrote works in well-defined categories: the Sonata, the string quartet, the quintet for winds. One such figure is Ewald Straesser. This new release by the Audiophile label MDG provides an ideal introduction to this prolific German composer who had a long career over a life nicely divided by the year 1900 (1867- 1933) and seems to have been accorded considerable respect in his day only to drift into oblivion.
According to the excellent liner notes, Straesser favored chamber music and that is what we get on this recital by the outstanding Berolina Ensemble who specialize in bringing lesser known works into circulation. What will catch many a listener’s attention about this recording is that it features a longish Clarinet quintet. One immediately ponders the possibility of a piece inspired by that sublime masterpiece, the Brahms opus 115 quintet, for this writer perhaps the crowning chamber work of the 19th century. The liner notes encourage this hope by heralding Sraesser as a composer explicitly working in the “way of Brahms”.
Not surprisingly the piece does not withstand such a comparison and what piece would? Yet it is very good on its own more modest terms. It rolls along with a great sense of purpose and clarity of structure. It contains many fine melodies and the instruments are well voiced And it is not every day that we require weightiness and autumnal melancholy that mark the opus 115 masterpiece of his predecessor. Sometimes we are just as good with Dvorak in one of his lighter moods-and that is what we have here. Composed during the Great War it doesn’t convey a heavily freighted sense of gloom or angst; Instead, as the liner notes suggest, it offers a sense of comfort. The long largo insistently underscores consonance and resolution, at best recalling the pastoralism of an Elgar serenade. The clarinet does shine especially in the Alla Breve where it nicely converses with the first violin and then plunges into an animated ensemble full of charm.
The Sonata op. 58 for clarinet and piano vaults us ahead to the last years of this composer’s life. The mood is rather different here. There is a freer sense of agitation and not everything is nicely resolved. There is a long first movement that is full of melodic business. But the two andantes in the middle are stronger stuff, much is communicated and there are vivid moments of melodic inspiration Expertly supported by pianist Vilelr Valbonesi, the clarinet is eloquent across a range of temperaments. At times, the music seems to involve the instruments in an intimate sort of inquiry. But then just as quickly just bubbles forward in Rossini like melodic happiness.
The last piece, the wind quintet, is the most conventional of all. The atmosphere is one contained jollity. Perhaps a Sunday celebration for the mayor’s birthday party. The clarinetist has most capable peers and the engineer has a sure hand with separating the woodwinds on the soundstage. It was written in 1903, the year that Henry Ford launched the model T car. (the Rolls Royce would follow in 1904). If we associate that innovation with the advent of Modernism and its host of inventions and accelerations, we might also remind ourselves that this was also the Age of the Bicycle more generally.In terms of style and audience this work and the composer more generally might be the musical equivalent of the bicycle. Rooted in the innovations of an earlier period, consonant to listeners tonal expectations, but also clever and imbued with healthy athleticism. Nevertheless, in the end this work will not exactly threaten the position of Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev as the leading composers of the first three decades of the 20th century..
Ravel, Stravinsky, Scriabin etc.
Still it is entirely rewarding to discover a fine relatively forgotten composer who wrote in the long Autumn of Romanticism and revisited two forms we associate with Brahms and left us a Wind Quintet worthy of the best garden party in any century. It will not be necessary for any other ensemble to record these works as it would be impossible to see how the sonics of performances could be improved upon. However, these pieces may make one curious about this composer’s other chamber music.