Sometimes even the most prolific and creative talents need an occasional boost of inspiration. Such was the case with the composer Johanas Brahms, who later in his life during a period of dearth, proclaimed that he would cease composing anything else. Yet, fate or Divine Favor would have it that he heard the ravishing playing of clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld one evening ... and the rest is history. After that life-changing event, Brahms would go on to compose several works for clarinet and Muhlfeld: the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 and two Sonatas for Clarinet Op. 120. While Brahms might be better known for his monumental symphonies, he wrote abundant and superlative works in the chamber genre - all of which are masterful and none are second-rate.
Amongst these, the Clarinet Quintet and Trio featured on this CD are among the finest, most staturesque chamber works for clarinet in the repertoire - and some of Brahms' best. Although Brahms (1833-1897) composed during the "Romantic era," his forms often followed in the classical tradition of Mozart and Beethoven. Music writer Melvin Berger summarizes Brahms' style this way: "In his music Brahms succeeded in reconciling Classism and Romanticism, these two seemingly irreconcilable musical styles. The use of traditional (sonata) forms and avoidance of extra-musical associations indicate his kinship with the music of the past (Mozart, Haydn). At the same time, his soaring melodies, fluid rhythms and rich harmonies show he was spiritually and musically in tune with his own era."
The Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 is often felt as Brahms' finest chamber work and one that showcases the clarinet's magnificant range of expressivity - the high, soprano voice in the clarino register ... the breathy and sensuous tones of the middle range ... and the darker, foreboding timbres of the lowest range. Another highlight of the their reading of the Clarinet Trio must surely be the cello that takes center stage in some gorgeous writing and playing for that instrument.
In these fine recordings, Thea King and the Gabrieli Quartet embrace both era's musical styles with an introspective and tonally-alluring reading. Their "appropriately relaxed" manner fits the nature of these works which represent Brahms' quintessential "autumnal" season with their gracefully-meandering lyricism, whistful moods, sensuous sonorities and avoidance of extremes of harmonic tension. Yet, all is not purely "pastoral" in these works, and King and the Gabrieli Strings respond with enthusiastic rhapsody and intensity in the several passionate outbursts. In these moments, Thea King's clarinet stands out prominantly (maybe too much so occasionally in the balance) with a sharper "attack" in her tone. The legendary slow movements finds them at their most expressive as they succeed to convey the poignancy and beauty of these autumnal works. Their are few slow movements more beguiling and mesmerizingly beautiful than the Adagio which this group serves well.
Overall, Thea King and co. here put forth a rich and attractive reading that completes with the best. While there might be a few minor aspects in some movements that I admire slightly more in other recordings, this would truly be nitpicking as this is a really lovely and musically pure reading. Thankfully too, the sound quality is rich and well-projected, capturing the tones of the musicians with an attractive, bright vividness within a somewhat-forward ambiance. For those who like more complete collections, a fine 2-CD set from Philips DUO (Brahms' Complete Quintets) has a beautiful recording of the Clarinet Quintet which features one of the most delicately beautiful recordings of the famous Adagio movement. But, this coupling of the Clarinet Quintet and Trio by Thea King/Gabrieli Quartet is one of the higher-rated CD's per Gramophone, Penguin and Third Ear Guides and a choice that is sure to please most listeners. Compositions - 5 stars; Performance - 4.5 stars; Sound quality - 5 stars.