MOZART and BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintets – Karl-Heinz Steffens, clarinet/ Scharoun Ensemble Berlin – Tudor multichannel SACD 7137, 70:44 ***** [Distr. by Naxos]:
The two clarinet quintets on this SACD were composed a century apart. Mozart’s beautiful Quintet was written for his friend Anton Stadler, a superb clarinetist and the inspiration for several of the most beloved works ever composed for the instrument. Brahms’ Quintet was composed for his friend Richard Muhlfeld, also a virtuoso on the clarinet. Though their musical language is quite different the two quintets are late works that share a similarity in mood. Both quintets possess an autumnal beauty and a melancholy expressiveness that is timeless.
Mozart completed his Clarinet Quintet in September 1789 during a difficult period in his life. Both he and his wife were ill and an economic depression afflicting Austria severely reduced his financial circumstances. Despite these hardships the Clarinet Quintet never yields to despair. It always retains that characteristic Classical reserve and serenity even when the music hints at darker emotions, as in the heart-melting second movement Larghetto with its succession of poignant themes. Even the sprightly Menuetto and the brilliant concluding Allegretto con variazioni aren’t immune to hints of sadness. Clarinetist Karl-Heinz Steffens and the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin probe the Quintet’s emotional depth, playing with emotion and a sense of urgency but never without the appropriate Mozartean restraint. Their tempos are stately, their textures are beautifully transparent and they possess an almost magical feel for expressing this music’s burnished colors. This is a superb performance.
Brahms completed his Quintet in December 1891 as he neared the end of his career. This is a pensive, brooding work, filled with dark colors and haunting melodies. The Clarinet Quintet seems designed to peel away the composer’s legendary reserve and reveal the deep regret and emotional turmoil that is glimpsed only fleetingly in the dying light of approaching winter. Steffens and the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin adopt a Romantic expressiveness that is utterly appropriate for this sublime work. There is starkness in the way they approach this music’s complexities that serves to heighten emotions even as they distance themselves from any hint of self-indulgence. The Brahms Quintet requires a different musical vocabulary than the Mozart and Steffens and The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin succeed admirably in conveying the beauty of both works. Repeated listening revealed new beauties each time, and I enjoyed this disc immensely.
The sound of this SACD is utterly clear and lifelike with warmth that heightens the beauty of both works. The clarinet sounds especially rich with a fullness that is often breathtaking when the music demands maximum expressiveness. Because both quintets are filled with darker colors, the clarity of this recording never allows textures to become either muddy or indistinct.
– – Mike Birman