Naxos issues CD from NZSQ of Brahms’s 3rd string quartet and clarinet quintet

New Zealand String Quartet and James Campbell (clarinet)
Brahms: String Quartet No 3 in B flat, Op 67 and Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op 115

Naxos CD Recording. Recorded at St Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto; 14-16 July 2015 (Naxos 8.573454)

The New Zealand String Quartet recorded Brahms’s first two string quartets, Op 51, in July 2014 at the same place.

All modern recordings of Brahms’s three string quartets fill the second disc with another comparable (occasionally a non-comparable) work, sometimes by Brahms; the filler has been the clarinet quintet on several occasions.

String Quartet No 3
Setting the third quartet alongside the clarinet quintet was logical enough, but the juxtaposition created a somewhat unexpected, though by no means disagreeable experience. The quartet came from 1876 when he was 43, while the quintet was among his twilight compositions, in 1891, when he was (only) 58. The tone has changed from buoyant and confident, though even in earlier music infused with a gentle melancholy, to a generally subdued, elusive, seriously inward and elegiac character. But the quintet is one of the most beautiful things Brahms wrote.

The quartet in B flat major is rather more sanguine and confident than the two of Op 51, which are both in minor keys.

The first impact of the NZSQ’s playing was their vivid articulation, immediacy, which was intensified in a very luminous acoustic. The first movement opens with strikingly contrasted phrases, first from 2nd violin and viola, and then two bars, much more emphatic, from all four strings, a pattern that continues for about 20 bars.

Right there, the passing prominence of Douglas Beilman’s second violin made me conscious of the fact that this might have been his last recording session (he retired at the end of last year), and so I listened particularly to the beautiful, mellow sounds of his instrument, generally distinct from Helene Pohl’s brighter first violin; and again there were phrases towards the end of the second movement where the second violin is particularly ingratiating.

The players produce an immediately arresting spirit and though the mood of the music calms later, the clarity of each instrument never dims and the emphatic triplet rhythms are a constant delight.

I can imagine certain listeners finding the Andante movement perhaps too casual, after the propulsive first movement; for me, that contrast was perfectly judged, its meditative lyricism, at times meandering.

Speaking of individuals, there were the long, glorious melodic strands from Gillian Ansell’s viola through the lovely third movement and at the start of the fourth. Though there are entrancing beauties throughout the piece, I found myself returning often to the last movement with its endless modulations and inventiveness, the return of a dancing, triplet episode from the first movement, and growing wonderment at Brahms’s melodic gifts and the endless subtleties of the music’s patterns and procedures.

Clarinet Quintet
Recent recordings of the clarinet quintet have linked it with clarinet quintets by Hindemith, Reger, Mozart, an eccentric piece by David Bruce, as well as with other Brahms pieces: string quartet No 2, and with his clarinet trio and other pieces.

My frank reaction to this piece would never do in the pages of Gramophone or the International Record Review; I can’t find the usual ‘critic-speak’ phraseology, for I simply get weak at the knees listening to a recording of this quality – no, not just technical flawlessness or interpretation that accords with today’s fashions such as adherence to the performance practice of the music’s own era, but old-fashioned adolescent emotion, spiritual and heart-strings-pulling rapture. My main criteria are not artistic integrity, intensity of expression, but simply to be moved by the obvious love that all five players feel for this very special masterpiece.

The five know each other very well and it shows right away, in the perfect tonal sympathy they share. Eminent Canadian clarinettist James Campbell has had a relationship with the NZSQ for many years, starting, I imagine at the Banff International Chamber Music Festival. Inter alia, they have played together at the Nelson Chamber Music Festival, first time in 2007 when my chief memory is of a wonderful concert at a Marlborough vineyard that included the clarinet quintets of both Mozart and Brahms. In later visits I recall Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, the Schubert Octet and Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen.

As Mozart and others had found long before, the blending of four strings and a clarinet seems to raise inspired musical ideas to a level of sublimity. The effect was that the strings and the clarinet each took on the characteristics, were absorbed into the sonic cosmos of the other. It was evident right at the start with the slow ethereal arpeggio of the clarinet entry, and Campbell’s intimate relationship with the tones and colourings of the strings sustained a magically integrated spirit through all four movements.

The quintet is unusual in that its basic spirit seems not to change much from movement to movement, though it does change in tempo and rhythm, and the third movement, which is as close as Brahms gets to a sort of Scherzo – there’s even a section marked Presto; and of course there are more animated episodes in the Finale, Con Moto, which can be heard as vivacious or animated; nevertheless, there’s an air of graceful melancholy throughout. It’s especially remarkable in the Adagio in which the clarinet seems to be present, uninterruptedly throughout: his playing was a vital element in a movement that was other-worldly, just achingly beautiful.

Again, though the whole was inevitably greater than the sum of the parts, the individual beauties kept catching the ear; there were times when the loveliest companion for the clarinet was Rolf Gjelsten’s cello.

Though reviewers with access to multiple versions of the clarinet quintet can attempt comparisons, commenting on minutiae, on perceived or imagined variations in emotional intensity, indulging such insights as finding “the tone of gentle love but no regret” for example, the few that I have on vinyl and CD make pointless such an attempt on my part.

Many performances are rewarding and are no doubt as deeply satisfying as this. However, none touch me more movingly.

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