The Alban Berg Qt. made one of the most aggressive recordings of Brahms's three string quartets that I know of; it appeared on Teldec early in their meteoric career. That approach isn't recognizable in this live Clarinet Quintet from Vienna in 1998. There's refinement to the point of politeness in their playing. Star soloist Sabine Meyer (remembered in youth as the reason for Karajan's departure from the Berlin Phil. -- he appointed her but for chauvinist reasons the musicians refused to seat her) doesn't steal the spotlight, preferring to sinuously blend in with the strings. I must admit to a slightly queasy feeling for Brahms's late infatuation with the clarinet, which he uses dolefully and with an excess of plaintive romantic yearning. Others love this quintet for the reasons that keep me away. You'd think that a low-key performance like this one, with its silken textures and emotional reserve, would fit the bill. But if you are going to take on the Clarinet Quintet, you have to give yourself passionately to what Brahms wrote, and here that doesn't happen except by fits and starts.
The two string quintets of Brahms haven't gained much popularity, probably because famous string quartets want to shine on their own without the extra violist. The Juilliard made a famous recording with star violist Walter Trampler, and except for its dated sound, there's no reason to go much further afield. But I treasure live readings of the two string sextets by the ABQ, and I hoped that this recording of the String Quintet No. 2 Op. 111 would be similar in its drive, excitement, and virtuosic swagger. Happily, it comes close. The cellist is careful not to drag the sonority down, allowing the textures to remain light and fresh. The second subject in the first movement is deliriously sweet and soaring. For the life of me, I can't remotely understand why the disapproving Gramophone reviewer found this movement heavy--i'ts quite the opposite. throughout, the ABQ and guest Hariolf Schlichtig deliver the subtlety of a string quartet. The Adagio's nuanced texture cold be mistaken by the ear as a quartet, in fact.
This quintet precedes the fulsome Clarinet Quintet by only four opus numbers, so it has its share of Brahms's late melancholy and emotional ambiguity. The ABQ don't emphasize that side of the work, however, taking their cue from its major key. Only the hesitating rhythm of the Scherzo brings out the suggestion of tears. The finale is marked Vivace, but Brahms took down the liveliness by adding "not too much," and therefore the ABQ are right to add half-lights and reflective shading to the music. The Juilliard are more straightforward in their sunniness. It's a choice between two thoroughly engrossing readings.