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Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115

Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)

Danish String Quartet (photo credit: Caroline Bittencourt)

Danish String Quartet (photo credit: Caroline Bittencourt)

Composer
Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Composition Year
1891
Work Movements
1. Allegretto
2. Adagio
3. Andantino
4. Con moto
Artists
Danish Quartet (Frederik Øland, Rune Sorensen [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Sjölin [cello]) [quartet], Julian Bliss [clarinet]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

If ever a justification was needed for a music festival, then the story of Brahms' meeting with Richard Mühlfeld provides it. After writing his Opus 111, Brahms had been threatening to retire from composition: Above all I was always used to everything being clear to me. It seems to me that it's not going the way it used to. I'm just not going to do any more. My whole life I've been a hard worker; now for once I'm going to be good and lazy! His visit to the week-long festival at Meiningen changed all that. Brahms was stunned by performances of the Weber Clarinet Concerto and Mozart Clarinet Quintet by Mühlfeld. Here was a musician who could make his instrument sing like a violist or mezzo-soprano – other incarnations of the dark, soulful voice that had always seduced him. He sat with him for hours listening to him play and was spellbound by the sensuality of the clarinet in Mühlfeld's hands. The fruits of that summer's composing were first the Clarinet Trio and then, what he called a far greater folly, the B minor quintet.

Traditionally the solo instrument is set against the strings in a solo-versus-tutti confrontation, but Brahms finds a subtler way to unveil the glory of his new love. After the haunting introductory measures for strings alone, the clarinet gradually emerges, only to sink back into the string texture, emerge again, then once again be re-absorbed. Even the customary opposition between major and minor, so crucial to expression in tonal music, is eroded, so we are left in the ambivalent world of dreams. Almost all the first movement themes are gentle, relaxed and reflective except for the staccato and forceful transition from the first to second subject and a brief display of passion in the coda. Much has been made of this work's autumnal resignation, but it is just as likely that Brahms was joyfully exploring this new rich, velvety voice he had so belatedly discovered.

This late-night romance reaches its apotheosis in the ternary form adagio, evoking a profound mood of sensuous longing. It is a song of love, whose sweet sighs are unique to the clarinet. The long piú lento central section is Brahms’ last homage to the Zigeuner style, with a series of florid clarinet arabesques that spiral and swoop over a fantastic string texture of rustling tremolandi.

The brief scherzo begins with an ambling andantino, whose serenade-like cadences soon give way to a Presto non assai ma con sentimento.  This turns out to be the main portion of the movement, developing its own self-contained sonata form and generating a burst of energy before subsiding in a quiet glow. The finale is a set of variations just like the last movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.  The theme is followed by five variations and a coda, handled with all the marvellous harmonic resource of Brahms’ later manner. The tune itself seems to reflect much of the material we have already heard and the variations themselves underline this cyclic idea. The agitated second variation clearly alludes to the gypsy arabesques of the slow movement, and the fourth variation recalls the presto theme from the third movement. The final variation takes on the form of a passionate waltz, leading without a close straight into the coda. This begins in a sombre mood and quotes both the opening and the closing of the first movement, with subtle hesitations and an unexpected stress at the very end that hints at the coming of winter. 

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Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115

Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Performance date: Friday 4th July 2014
Venue: Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,

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http://archive.westcorkmusic.ie/details/view/cmf/432

Composer Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Work Title Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115
Composition Year 1891
Work Movements 1. Allegretto
2. Adagio
3. Andantino
4. Con moto
Artist(s) Danish Quartet (Frederik Øland, Rune Sorensen [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Sjölin [cello]) [quartet], Julian Bliss [clarinet]
Performance Date Friday 4th July 2014
Performance Venue Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,
Event Late Night Concert
Duration 00:38:06
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTE
Instrumentation Category Clarinet Quintet
Instrumentation cl, 2vn, va, vc
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

If ever a justification was needed for a music festival, then the story of Brahms' meeting with Richard Mühlfeld provides it. After writing his Opus 111, Brahms had been threatening to retire from composition: Above all I was always used to everything being clear to me. It seems to me that it's not going the way it used to. I'm just not going to do any more. My whole life I've been a hard worker; now for once I'm going to be good and lazy! His visit to the week-long festival at Meiningen changed all that. Brahms was stunned by performances of the Weber Clarinet Concerto and Mozart Clarinet Quintet by Mühlfeld. Here was a musician who could make his instrument sing like a violist or mezzo-soprano – other incarnations of the dark, soulful voice that had always seduced him. He sat with him for hours listening to him play and was spellbound by the sensuality of the clarinet in Mühlfeld's hands. The fruits of that summer's composing were first the Clarinet Trio and then, what he called a far greater folly, the B minor quintet.

Traditionally the solo instrument is set against the strings in a solo-versus-tutti confrontation, but Brahms finds a subtler way to unveil the glory of his new love. After the haunting introductory measures for strings alone, the clarinet gradually emerges, only to sink back into the string texture, emerge again, then once again be re-absorbed. Even the customary opposition between major and minor, so crucial to expression in tonal music, is eroded, so we are left in the ambivalent world of dreams. Almost all the first movement themes are gentle, relaxed and reflective except for the staccato and forceful transition from the first to second subject and a brief display of passion in the coda. Much has been made of this work's autumnal resignation, but it is just as likely that Brahms was joyfully exploring this new rich, velvety voice he had so belatedly discovered.

This late-night romance reaches its apotheosis in the ternary form adagio, evoking a profound mood of sensuous longing. It is a song of love, whose sweet sighs are unique to the clarinet. The long piú lento central section is Brahms’ last homage to the Zigeuner style, with a series of florid clarinet arabesques that spiral and swoop over a fantastic string texture of rustling tremolandi.

The brief scherzo begins with an ambling andantino, whose serenade-like cadences soon give way to a Presto non assai ma con sentimento.  This turns out to be the main portion of the movement, developing its own self-contained sonata form and generating a burst of energy before subsiding in a quiet glow. The finale is a set of variations just like the last movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.  The theme is followed by five variations and a coda, handled with all the marvellous harmonic resource of Brahms’ later manner. The tune itself seems to reflect much of the material we have already heard and the variations themselves underline this cyclic idea. The agitated second variation clearly alludes to the gypsy arabesques of the slow movement, and the fourth variation recalls the presto theme from the third movement. The final variation takes on the form of a passionate waltz, leading without a close straight into the coda. This begins in a sombre mood and quotes both the opening and the closing of the first movement, with subtle hesitations and an unexpected stress at the very end that hints at the coming of winter.