Intimidated by the example of Beethoven’s late quartets, Brahms struggled for years before finally publishing his first two string quartets
in 1873. By contrast, so inspired was he by the playing of the Meiningen Hofkapelle’s principal clarinettist Richard Mülfeld, whom he met in early 1891, that he wrote the Clarinet Quartet and Clarinet Trio in just a few weeks. Mülfeld and the Joachim Quartet premiered the Clarinet Quartet on December 12, 1891. It was an immediate hit.
This beautiful new recording brings together the Clarinet Quintet and the A Minor String Quartet Op 51 No 2. It also brings together the Jerusalem Quartet, formed in 1993 and thanks to Musica Viva no stranger to Australian concert-goers, and that equally enthusiastic advocate for chamber music, Israeli clarinettist Sharon Kam.
Excellent performances of the Clarinet Quintet abound. My personal favourites include Thea King with the Gabrieli Quartet on Hyperion and the Nash Ensemble on Wigmore Hall Live: both, true to the nature of the work, eschew any attempt to isolate the clarinet; it is instead effortlessly integrated into the string texture. Which is exactly what Kam does here, trusting individuality to timbre and tone while perfectly weighting volume and phrasing against the Jerusalem Quartet’s finely-tuned sense of ensemble.
Her sensitively shaped opening phrase in the first movement Allegro is answered by the string version with such tenderness that the ensuing drama is less argument, more passionate dialogue. The mellifluous major key Adagio seems like a stroll through a lush garden, artfully arranged; the Andantino vibrates as delicately as a watercolour; finally, the theme and variations are meditative, backward-looking. Make no mistake: this is musicianship of the highest order.
The String Quartet in A Minor is no less successful. Violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov – who incidentally plays Jacqueline du Pré’s Sergio Perresson cello, loaned to him by Daniel Barenboim – are now so finely attuned to each other’s’ musical sensibilities that their music-making is more instinctual than measured. Thus stimulating conversation and contrast are the order of the day: between first and second subjects; between fast and slow sections; between harmonic and polyphonic textures. The chiaroscuro of the opening movement is particularly well managed, so refined and yet so full of conflict that the following two movements seem to foreshadow the ultimate drama of the finale. Superb.