BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 / String Quartet No. 3 (Andrew Walton/ Boris Rener/ Ludwig Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554601)
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Clarinet Quintet in Bminor, Op. 115; String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bassplayer and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relativepoverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a naturalaptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touringas a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him agrounding in the technical basis of composition, while as an adolescent he wasable to earn some money by playing the piano for private and publicentertainment and by teaching, gradually winning a local reputation as aperformer.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi, whointroduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work.
Two years later he set out in his company on a concert tour, their journeytaking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, toWeimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to showparticular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profited from the visit, butBrahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress theMaster. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim'sagency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent,Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in D??sseldorf:the first, and last, official appointment of his career. Now in the music ofBrahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in thejournal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, declaringBrahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann,who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression,attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spentin an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, thegifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm frienduntil her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to returnin triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. Thisambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to manyto fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, aboveall, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successorto Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musicalassociations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted byWagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publiclyexpressed their opposition.
Brahms made a significant contribution to chamber music repertoire. Hisfirst attempts were made in the early 1850s and are now lost, but in 1853 hewrote a movement for the composite violin sonata by Schumann and his pupilAlbert Dietrich, intended for Joachim. After the first of his StringSextets, in 1860, he turned his attention to the Piano Quartets andthe Piano Quintet, followed in 1865 by the second Sextet. Hisfirst string quartet, the String Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1, waswritten between 1868 and 1873, and is more or less contemporary with the StringQuartet in A minor, Opus 51, No. 2, completed in the same year. Athird quartet, the String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 67, followed in1876, and in 1883 and 1890 Brahms added two String Quintets. His lastchamber music was written for theclarinet: a trio, a quintet and two poignantly moving sonatas that werecomposed in 1894.
In December 1890Brahms wrote to his publisher, Simrock, offering his String Quintet,
Opus III, and his revision of the early Piano Trio, Opus 8, as worksmarking the end of his career as a composer. Later in 1891 he was at workagain, inspired by the playing of the clarinettist Richard M??hlfeld, whom hehad heard with the Meiningen Orchestra in March. Ml??hlfeld had started hiscareer as a violinist in the spa orchestra, directed by his father atSalzungen. In 1873 he joined the Saxe-Meiningen Court Orchestra, again as aviolinist, to become principal clarinettist in 1879, retaining the sameposition until his death in 1907 His playing impressed Brahms, with whom hecollaborated in the first performance of the Clarinet Trio in Berlin inDecember 1891, when he also played the new Clarinet Quintet with theJoachim Quartet. In January 1895 he joined Brahms in the first performance inVienna of the two Clarinet Sonatas, works that they played in laterperformances elsewhere in Austria and in Germany.
As with the viola, forwhich these works were also arranged, the clarinet has a particular registerand timbre that seemed admirably fitted to the autumnal mood that Brahms nowmade his own. The movements of the quintet are closely related thematically.
The first, in tripartite sonata-allegro form, starts with a theme that soondevelops in a fuller form, when it is taken up by the viola and cello, echoedby the violins. A new element is introduced in the following transition, withits brusquely separated notes and rapid triplet figuration, leading to the expressivesecond subject, a dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin. Thesematerials are developed in the central section of the movement, to be followedby the return of the first subject in recapitulation. The B major secondmovement starts with a melody for the clarinet, accompanied by the composer'sfavoured cross- rhythms in the string parts. The B minor central section of themovement is based on the first subject of the opening movement and the maintheme of the second, treated imaginatively, with delicate arabesques from theclarinet. The movement ends with the return of the principal theme. The thirdmovement suggests the theme to come in an opening Andantino, modulatingto D major, after which the scherzo proper starts, introduced by the strings.
The counterpart of a trio section appears, marked by the plucked stringaccompaniment with which it begins, and this is followed by the return of thescherzo. The quintet ends with a theme and five variations, the melody itselfrelated in outline to the main themes of the preceding movements. The cellodominates the first variation, the first violin and then the clarinet thesecond. The third is in rapider figuration, the fourth, in B major, largely adialogue between clarinet and first violin, and the fifth, in which the violaassumes importance, in B minor again, more closely related to the firstmovement, with a reminiscence of which the whole work ends.
In 1872 Brahms hadsucceeded Anton Rubinstein as director of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreundeconcerts. After three years he found himself glad to resign, and in 1875,during his summer holiday this year at Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg, hecompleted his Piano Quartet, Opus 60, and worked on his last stringquartet, the Quartet in B flat major, Opus 67, published the followingyear with a dedication to Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann, his host inUtrecht during a concert tour of Holland in January 1876.
The first movement ofthe new quartet starts with a cheerful theme that soon allows the intrusion ofcross-rhythms. The second subject, appearing after a transition that touches onthe minor, is a happy dance tune, and these elements form the substance of thec