A Mosaic of Music: Stereophile's Clarinet Quintet CD Page 3

The Music
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 (1789)
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in b, Op.115 (1891)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart must have liked to write for the clarinetist Anton Stadler—not only because of the latter's instrumental skill, but also to placate one of his many creditors. One is, after all, presumably less likely to dun someone who has written a masterpiece in one's honor. In any event, Mozart's gambling buddy and fellow Freemason certainly brought out the composer's best, inspiring him to some of his finest, most sophisticated writing. In the Clarinet Concerto K.622, Mozart made especial use of Stadler's innovation, the basset clarinet, with its increased lower register, and he may have intended to employ the same instrument in the Quintet for its deeper sonority. There is no question that K.581 contains some of the finest of what can be called Mozart's mature style. For Stadler, he wrote in a spare and measured idiom—even a petulant aristocrat could not have complained of a superfluity of notes.

Mozart's gift for melody is nowhere more apparent than in the Quintet's opening theme, or the little country dance that comprises the Trio II. Throughout the work, we hear evidence of his facility in the use of instrumental color; he writes as one intimately familiar with the sound and texture of the clarinet. Although K.581, in common with many of Mozart's smaller works, looks back to the Baroque for its dance-derived structures, it is in no sense reactionary. Mozart was always looking forward, anticipating new possibilities in music; the opportunity to compose for a virtuoso such as Stadler invariably brought forth something unique and wonderful.

All of the evidence appears to demonstrate that, contrary to the romantic myth, Mozart did not write from some sort of celestial dictation; there were false starts and reworkings aplenty. What are undeniable are his facility and grace, as revealed over and over in works like the Clarinet Quintet—music that seems to have simply flowed from an unquenchable fountain. If all of this did not come instantly, he makes it appear as though it did, which is what is truly important.

What came at least relatively easily to Mozart seems to have been enormously difficult for Johannes Brahms. By 1890 or so he had seemingly forsworn new compositions, perhaps wishing that the beautiful String Quartet in G would stand as his swan song. Nevertheless, he agreed to visit Meiningen in the summer of 1891, where he heard the former violinist Richard Mühlfeld play Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and Weber's Clarinet Concerto in f. Brahms was enraptured, and in ensuing months listened continually to Mühlfeld, absorbing the tone colors and possibilities of the instrument. Revitalized, he began to write again.

Always the conservative (or, rather, the conservator), Brahms was nevertheless a master of melody and orchestral color. Now for "Fräulein Klarinette," as he called Mühlfeld, he wrote a Quintet (with Mozart certainly in mind) that was both backward-looking in its Classical touches (note especially the opening of the initial Allegro), yet firmly in his own Romantic tradition of Bohemian dances and atmospherically evocative passages for strings. What is new with the Quintet is Brahms's clear understanding of the tonal character of the clarinet itself, like warm late-afternoon sunlight.

In Brahms's view, German music (hence all music) in the late 19th century was in a state of decline; perhaps his Gypsy melodies were a deliberate answer to the ultranationalistic and increasingly anti-Semitic expressions of the Wagnerians. Yet Brahms himself was never a musical extravert; he may even have envied this in Wagner, while despising Wagner's politics. It is in works like Op.115 and the Vier Ernste Gesänge, written a few years later for his beloved Clara Schumann, that we truly find Brahms bathed in that autumnal warmth.

Despite the deeply felt melancholy that runs through the Quintet, and which must reflect the composer's own feelings, it is pleasant to think of Dr. Brahms playing the Op.114 Trio, also written for Mühlfeld, as he concertized for the last time at the keyboard. Like Mozart, Brahms did not suffer from an excess of modesty—he certainly knew that he had done well to go on writing. He had found his voice once more in Mühlfeld's clarinet, and it would not desert him again.—Les Berkley