Henri MARTEAU: Serenade; Clarinet Quintet/Alexander ZEMLINSKY: Clarinet Trio – Mark Lieb (cl.)/Phoenix Ensemble – Navona Records

by | May 28, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

“Chamber Works of Henri Marteau and Alexander Zemlinsky” = Henri MARTEAU: Serenade; Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet/Alexander ZEMLINSKY: Trio for clarinet, cello and piano – Mark Lieb, clarinet/Phoenix Ensemble – Navona Records NV6076 [Distr. by Naxos], 77:09, (2/10/2017) ****:

Pleasant and somewhat obscure music played with dedication.

This very pleasant collection of chamber music, featuring clarinetist Mark Lieb, is a very rewarding discovery. First, the Phoenix Ensemble, largely organized and lead by Lieb, is a very fine performing unit. The ensemble is based in New York and has given many concerts intended to bring some lesser known music to diverse and atypical audiences. Lieb and the members of the Phoenix Ensemble have a clear commitment to both the lesser known works from familiar eras and idioms but also to new and contemporary music. They have made several recordings that illustrate this commitment such as their amazing recording of the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by Morton Feldman and that by Milton Babbitt or their equally attention-getting disc with music by Stockhausen and Schoenberg.

The music on this album is not quite so adventurous as those mentioned above but it is, nonetheless, quite pleasing and interesting. The Trio by Zemlinksy is actually pretty well known, especially to clarinetists. I have played this very beautiful Romantic gem and the performance here by Mark Lieb is excellent; especially the lush middle movement; Andante. Zemlinsky was a contemporary of Mahler and – like Mahler – his music received a bit of a revival from obscurity in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He is one of the many very talented Jewish-Austrian composers whose music, sadly, made the Nazis’ ‘forbidden music’ list but it is well worth exploring at any time; including the lovely Trio featured here.

The music of Henri Marteau is quite a different matter. I had never heard of this composer and seemingly not many others either. Marteau was a French violinist, born in 1874, and – for most of his career – he was well known as a performer and teacher but hardly at all as a composer. The Serenade, op. 20 as well as the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings are a direct result of the young Marteau being introduced (by the then aging Johannes Brahms) to clarinet virtuoso Richard Muhlfeld; the same clarinetist, known throughout Europe, for whom Brahms wrote all his clarinet masterworks. Both the Serenade as well as the Quintet are lovely works with moments of great beauty and even a little wry humor; the Serenade especially being composed at the same time as Marteau had written a little score to a comedic stage play. Good though these two pieces are they are not of the same artistic merit as the Zemlinsky (let alone any of those iconic clarinet works of Brahms) They are well worth hearing though and kudos to the Phoenix Ensemble for seeking this music out.

I did discover one interesting little fact that listeners may want to be aware of. There is also an Ensemble Phoenix Basel (in Switzerland) whom I am sure are also excellent but the present Phoenix Ensemble is based in New York; and they are genuinely worth exploring in recordings or live sometime.

Mark Lieb studied with Robert Marcellus and David Shifrin and is a very fine clarinetist. The Ensemble as a whole is full of talented and dedicated musicians and the music they choose is a bit outside the mainstream but very interesting indeed. I recommend this disc to anyone!

—Daniel Coombs

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