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Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51/No. 2; Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115
Sharon Kam (clarinet), the Jerusalem Quartet

Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115; Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
Jon Manasse (clarinet), Jon Nakamatsu (piano), The Tokyo Quartet

Antonin Dvorak
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 ("American")
Bedrich Smetana
String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life')
The Tokyo Quartet

Review By Max Westler

 

  It is certainly passing strange for the same company to simultaneously release two competing versions of the same work, but given that both are compelling, magnificently played, and distinctive accounts of the endlessly fascinating B minor Clarinet Quintet, I find it hard to complain. Let's just call it an embarrassment of riches. By 1890 Brahms had officially given up composition, telling his publisher, "I have worked enough. Now let the young folks take over." Then, on a visit to the ducal court of Meiningen, Brahms heard the clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld perform, and was so impressed that he composed two works the following summer: the Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 114, and the Quintet for clarinet and string quartet, Op. 115, both dedicated to Muhlfeld. Though two sonatas for clarinet and piano would follow three years later, Op. 115 remains the most auspicious product of the composer's Indian summer. Hearing the opening measures of the Clarinet Quintet, I find it hard not to think of the first stanza of William Butler Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole," another deeply elegaic work: "The trees are in their autumn beauty,/ The woodland paths are dry,/Under the October twilight the water/ Mirrors a still sky..." Those still waters will soon be roiled by painful memories and unfulfilled yearnings. And so it is with the Quintet: the surface of calm and ease often gives way to more disquieting moods that suggest an inescapable melancholy and the promise of a bleak winter to come. And yet at the end of the fourth movement, a set of five variations, there is at last a sense of resignation. When the work's opening theme coalesces with that last variation, an impassioned waltz, the beginning and the end (of the Quintet, and of a life) fold together in way that's both natural and inevitable. It is one of the most heartrending and profound moments in all of music.

Timings can sometimes be telling, and sometimes, as here, very misleading. In the last two movements of the quintet, the Tokyo and the Jerusalem are a scant fifteen seconds apart, and yet their interpretations couldn't be more different. The Tokyo emphasizes the contrast between the autumnal calm that suffuses the work and more restless, subversive elements. Here the melancholy and nostalgia reveal an almost existential unease, and the final chord is merciless, abrupt and terrifying. The Jerusalem doesn't mask the sense of contrast, but in general their performance is more yielding and tender. There's a sense of stark beauty and elegiac reflection; even that final chord is more subdued. Though Jon Manasse's tone is brighter (for the Tokyo) and Sharon Kam's slightly darker (for the Jerusalem), I find little to choose between them: they're both superb, technically and expressively.

The Tokyo has paired the later, more reflective Quintet with the youthful F minor Piano Quintet, as fiery and dramatic a work as Brahms ever wrote. Though the accomplished pianist Jon Nakamatsu and the Tokyo turn in an athletic and emotionally persuasive performance, I've always favored (perhaps perversely) recordings in which the pianist is more assertive: Richter with the Borodin Quartet, Serkin with the Budapest. Nakamatsu plays well enough, but in the end he's too mannerly, too content to follow the lead of the strings. There's also another problem: the magisterial account by Maurizio Pollini and the Italian Quartet still dominates this market. One should always be suspicious of the word "definitive." But if ever a recording was definitive, it's Pollini and the Italian Quartet's Brahms, Op. 34.

The Jerusalem has chosen to set the autumnal Clarinet Quintet beside a middle-period work: the summery A minor String Quartet Op. 51/No. 2. The Quartet opens with a familiar gesture: the notes A-F-A-E, a motto theme for Brahms ("Frei Aber Eindsam," Free but Solitary"). The music that follows is flowing, exhilarating, and brimming with ravishing surprises. It's not often that Brahms engages in the kind of Romantic abandon he permits himself here. Is there a more sustained outpouring of lyricism in all of Brahms than the Andante moderato? Here again the Jerusalem plays with warmth, tenderness, and an infectious spontaneity; their performance is aglow from first note to last.

So which of these two recordings to choose? I'd say that if you don't know either the Clarinet Quintet or the Piano Quintet, you should definitely go with Tokyo/Manasse/Nakamatsu. They will teach you what you need to know about both these works. You can then investigate other recordings: say, the version of the Clarinet Quintet by Thea King and the Gabrielli (on Hyperion) and the aforementioned Pollini/Italian version of the Piano Quintet. If you already have a version of the Clarinet Quartet that suits you, I'd go with the Jerusalem/Kam. Their performances of both works are technically impressive and highly individual. They'll teach you things about the Quintet you don't already know no matter how many other recordings you own.

It seems oddly appropriate that for their farewell recording the Tokyo has chosen the familiar pairing of Dvorak's "American" and Smetana's "From My Life." I say oddly because neither Dvorak nor Smetana has figured prominently in their concert programs or discography. Well, better late than never. The Dvorak receives a glad-hearted, disarming performance that ranks with the very best. But the Smetana is even better. The Tokyo has co-opted Smetana's autobiographical program and used it to represent their own narrative. As cellist Clive Greensmith has said, "The story Smetana tells in this Quartet is similar to our journey: the highs and lows, the drama, the melancholy, joy and rapture, and just about everything between."  The resulting performance represents each of those emotions with an expressive power and sense of total identification that's altogether remarkable. And so the Tokyo goes out with a bang. This release is not to be missed. The engineering on all three of these recordings is excellent, detailed and intimate. Lots of great music here: your move.

 

Brahms/Jerusalem Quartet

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Brahms Clarinet Quintet/Tokyo Quartet

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Brahms Piano Quintet/Tokyo Quartet

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Dvorak/Smetana/Tokyo Quartet

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