Twilight Of The Romantics
Walter Rabl: Quartet in E-flat for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano, Op. 1
Review By Joe Milicia
CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 088
Twilight of the Romantics, as this disc is dubbed, is a rather grandiose title for a CD of chamber music featuring clarinet. Wouldn't it apply better to something like Schoenberg's Gurrelieder or Strauss' Alpine Symphony? But whatever the title, this is a splendid recording. On first hearing, the first movement of the Walter Rabl Quartet sounds a blend of Brahms and salon music, and indeed the influence of Brahms strongly pervades both works. But on repeated listening the music does not become cloying, as real salon music does for some of us — I mean the sort of music suitable to be heard over wienerschnitzel and strudel in a Viennese restaurant. Rather, both works seem increasingly rich and accomplished, making one want to seek out other pieces by these currently quite obscure composers.
In 1896 at the age of 23, Walter Rabl won first prize for his Clarinet Quartet in a Vienna Musicians' Society contest (the young Alexander Zemlinsky won third place). Brahms, who had already written his great chamber works for clarinet in 1891-93, was one of the judges, and was so taken by the piece that he got his own publisher to release the Quartet and several other works by Rabl. According to the extensive program notes by Bonnie H. Campbell, Rabl went on to write a number of songs, a symphony, and at the age of 30 a fairy-tale opera, Liane, that was well received. Yet he ceased to compose after that, having a successful career as a conductor and operatic vocal coach.
Upon the first note of the opening Allegro moderato we hear a surging 3/4-time melody played first by the clarinet, then picked up in turn by the violin and cello (the piano is mostly an accompaniment in this movement). A second theme, again initiated by the clarinet, is more hushed and hollow, though the surging theme will predominate in most of the movement. The Adagio molto that follows is a set of variations, starting with a somber march played by the piano with gloomy underpinnings by the cello and clarinet. Eventually we shift to an imperious mazurka, then to a slower lyrical section with the violin taking the lead; before the piece is over we'll hear a brief fugue, followed by a brisker march and finally a recap of the somber opening. The very short Andantino un poco mosso is not a scherzo so much as a song without words, the melody taken up first, once again, by the clarinet. (Here as throughout, the writing for that instrument is quite idiomatic, though lacking the dramatic range and challenges of Brahms' clarinet music.) The Allegro con brio finale is cheerful and graceful, a fitting conclusion to this youthful work.
Josef Labor, born 30 years before Rabl, inhabited Brahms' artistic circle in Vienna. He was known particularly as an organist and teacher (his most famous pupil: Alma Schindler/Mahler/Werfel/Gropius), and was a close friend of the Wittgenstein brothers, the philosopher and amateur clarinetist Ludwig and the pianist Paul, for whom Labor was the first to write a left-hand concerto (preceding Ravel, Prokofiev and distinguished others).
Labor's Quintet is a more mature, substantial work than Rabl's, though still steeped in Brahmsian sonorities. The opening Allegro,in a triple meter like Rabl's, is considerably longer and more complex than any movement of the Quartet. The clarinet and piano are the stars, taking the melodic lead at almost every opportunity; the violin and cello are given their solo moments too, but for the most part the string trio provides a warm-textured background for the others. When not soaring above the others, the clarinet wends it way down into the alto register of the viola or plays in unison with the violin; the interplay between the five instruments makes this one of the most pleasurable movements on the disc.
The clarinet is even more prominently the star of the Allegretto grazioso, another "song without words" movement. The short Quasi Fantasia: Adagio that follows is a transitional movement. As the title suggests, we hear a series of cadenzas or seeming improvisations, though the strings come up with a fragmentary melody in the second half. The piano predominates, but a violin cadenza leads into the finale, a set of theme and variations, Quasi Allegretto. Perhaps a bit less inspired than the first two movements, this gentle, almost genteel movement allows the strings to take a more prominent part than heretofore, though at the end the clarinet gets to restate the triple-meter tune that opened the first movement.
The Orion Ensemble of Chicago has been together for 13 years, and their responsiveness to one another is evident at every moment of their performance. Clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle, with her richly mellow tone and skill at conveying the arch of a melody, seems ideally suited to the music, and Cedille's sound recording has superb realism and warmth. Certainly the music is not on the level of Brahms' four masterpieces for clarinet (which, by the way, would be a worthy recording project for members of the Orion Ensemble), but it is well worth hearing — especially for listeners who have enjoyed something like the Beaux Arts Trio's 1993 Philips recording of youthful chamber music by Korngold and Zemlinsky. The Zemlinsky Trio of 1895 is the work that lost to Rabl in the Vienna competition; it too is Brahmsian with perhaps more of a post-Wagnerian tinge, while the Korngold Trio of 1910 (written at the age of 12) has more the imprint of Richard Strauss. The works on both CDs are equally glowing, though whether in a Romantic twilight or with the ardency of youth the listener will have to decide.