Notes and Editorial Reviews
These works date from 1890 and 1891, the last decade of Brahms's life, but while the Clarinet Quintet has a wonderfully poised autumnal quality, the G major String Quintet is forceful and direct, at least in its first movement. I cannot agree at all with the booklet-note which declares that "not a cloud passes across these serene pages" and uses the adjective "carefree" (insouciant in the original French), for the first movement powerfully exhibits the dark stoicism that was always characteristic of the composer. The playing brings this out: charm is absent and instead we hear a dogged earnestness, and while perhaps this is right, rarely can five solo strings in a nineteenthcentury classic have sounded (though surely
intentionally) less easy on the ear. But the integrity of the playing deserves praise and, as I've already implied, I am inclined to think that it is close to what Brahms wanted: it's worth noting that Joseph Joachim was much disconcerted by his friend's work (as the composer probably expected him to be), though he loyally performed it with his ensemble. Even the Adagio is gloomy in a Nordic way and short of the lyrical warmth that we might expect at this point, while the waltz-like third movement in G minor fails to radiate any joy in the dance.
After this enigmatic work, the glorious lyricism of the Clarinet Quintet comes as a considerable contrast and, dare I say, a relief as well. The key is B minor, but the mood is welcoming and the writing mellifluous, while the playing of Michel Portal and the Melos Quartet is geared accordingly, to excellent effect. Their sound is beautiful and well balanced, and ensemble is sure with tempos nicely judged; indeed, this is a fine, loving performance, and well recorded. To sample its quality you only need hear such passages as the Quasi soslenuto at 651" in the first movement, the Hungarian-style episode at 3'20" in the Adagio and the deliciously bubbly Presto section in the third movement (1'22").
The alternative performance by Chamber Music Northwest (Delos/Pinnacle) takes a view of the G major Quintet so different that the first movement actually offers a fair amount of sunlight. Superficially it's more attractive, but I sus pect that the tougher playing of the Melos group may, as I've said, be closer to what Brahms wanted, even if he didn't get it in his lifetime. The remainder of the work is also more palatable in the same way; maybe, ideally, one should possess, or at least hear, both performances. The recording is also softer on the ear. The Clarinet Quintet is richly and skilfully done, but without all the subtlety and vivacity of the new performance, which for that reason I prefer.
-- Gramophone [7/1991]
reviewing the original release of this title, HM 401349
Works on This Recording
Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111 by Johannes Brahms
Gérard Caussé (Viola)
Melos String Quartet Stuttgart
Written: 1890; Austria
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115 by Johannes Brahms
Michel Portal (Clarinet)
Melos String Quartet Stuttgart
Written: 1891; Austria
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