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Friday, April 24, 2009

Perfect fivesomes

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Quintet, KV581, (1789) [31:32]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891) [39:00]

Karl-Heinz Steffens (clarinet)
Guy Baunnstein and Christoph Streuli (violins)
Ulrich Knörzer, (viola)
Richard Duven, (cello)

Recorded in the Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie, 22-23 June 2005 and the Grosser Saal der Berliner Philharmonie, 5-8 February, 2006.

TUDOR 7137 Super Audio Hybrid CD [70:44]

The clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms, two of the absolute masterworks in the chamber music literature have a great deal in common. Both came late in their composers’ careers (although only by circumstance in the case of Mozart), both were composed with famous virtuoso clarinetists in mind, both are cast in four movements ending in a theme and variations, and both are works of profoundly understated beauty and richness.

Mozart was going strong when he composed this piece, and although it is mature and contemplative in nature, it shows none of the signs of finality and valediction that are present in the Brahms. Rich in melodic content, Mozart seems to go further afield from classical formality to create a piece that is as fresh and original today as it was when it was first heard in 1789.

Brahms, on the other hand, came out of retirement to write four more works (two sonatas, a quartet and the present quintet) for the brilliant principle clarinetist of the Hamburg orchestra. And what a gift these works were. Reflective, autumnal and possessing an ease and serenity seldom found in Brahms’ earlier efforts, this is music that simply flows from the composer’s mind like water. Every structure is perfect in its symmetry, every phrase a flawlessly turned essay in elegance and grace.

After about a dozen hearings, I can say with confidence that these performances are amongst the most flawless that I have ever heard. Everything about them fits the music like a glove. Perfect balance, excellent pacing, seamless ensemble and impeccable intonation cause this music to seem to play itself. Of particular merit is this ensemble’s choice of tempi, and the ease with which the music ebbs and flows. There is never a static moment, nor do we ever feel that the music will become breathless. The effortlessness with which the sounds are produced is at once engaging and unbelievably soothing.

This is my first encounter with the Tudor label, but if this is any indication of the company’s standard for quality, I cannot wait to hear more. The sound is beautifully balanced, silken in tone; warm and rich from the softest to the loudest passages. Attractive packaging and concise and informative notes make the total package a winner. Order this one right away. You won’t be sorry.

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