Tuesdays with Johannes - I
Merkin Concert Hall
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 – String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18
St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble
“Fräulein Klarinette or ‘his dear nightingale’ as Brahms was wont to call Mühlfeld, on account of the exceptional sweetness of his tone, took part in the first performance...the enthusiasm was so great that the Adagio of the Quintet had to be repeated.”
Karl Geiringer, Brahms, His Life and Work
St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble is embarking on a three week exploration of chamber music christened “Facets of Brahms” with ancillary trips to the creative worlds of Robert and Clara Schumann and even Beethoven. The first of these three programs covers both the beginning and the conclusion of Brahms’s journey with a small group. A strong case can be made that the quintet on this program is the pinnacle of the composer’s achievement, while the sextet represents his first toe in the waters of the great chamber musicians.
Although much has been written about the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, it is significant to also note that the B minor Quintet was the only work with a non-string player ever performed at Joachim’s summer chamber music festival. It is both a delight and a profundity. Once I invited a clarinettist to a performance of this piece – as well as the Mozart for the same instrumentation – who afterwards said that the Mozart was so easy for a performer to play but that the Brahms was about the most difficult in the entire repertoire.
The clarinettist that day in the last century was Jon Manasse, who graced this same stage at Merkin this evening. I was suitably impressed with his youthful performance and looked forward to his burnished maturity. For some unexplained reason the program opened with the late work and followed with the early effort. This seemed a strange order of presentation with no attempt at an explanation. There had been an introductory lecture – which as always I skipped – so perhaps this issue of chronology was touched upon during that portion of the program.
This was a competent performance, long on accuracy but short on poesy. The tone of the individual instruments was not very broad (only the cellist was of an advanced age) and the combined sound lacked some of the magic of the manuscript. Mr. Manasse exhibited strong phrasing, especially in the second movement, but overall the sound of the group was pedestrian rather than fanciful. The first violin of Naoko Tanaka could have been considerably sweeter in tone and this unadorned performance colored the sound of the group as a whole. Overall this was a strong, workaday reading for most pieces of chamber music, but ultimately deficient for such a wondrous composition.
Brahms was musically a conservative, looking backward in an age where Wagner was developing the “music of the future”. Were the Hamburg master alive today he might very well be a leader of the period instrument movement. Certainly he conducted mostly pieces from previous centuries and stayed within the lines in creating his great compositions. In the present quintet he uses the variation suite technique for the incredible last movement. Here a “standard” theme and variations construction is stood on its head as the variations grow organically but the theme is never stated until the conclusion of the movement (and in this work, the end of the piece as a whole). This gambit imbues said theme with shining import, and its loveliness remains in the mind’s ear as a last utterance.
By contrast the sextet was lively and electric. Brahms emerged from the rough and tumble world of Hamburg, a port of embarkation filled with salty sea dogs and sea shanties. Some of those shanties made their way into his First Sextet, leaving their mark and echoes of dark alleys and unspeakable derring-do. Here the addition of two string players aided the atmosphere of the presentation, first violist Hsin-Yun Huang a stand-out of expressive phrasing. Her broad presentation then repeated in a more compact manner by Ms. Tanaka was the audible highlight of the evening.
An interesting journey back into another era where the New York surroundings echoed their place in the pantheon of Brahms chamber music, as the Trio, Op. 8 was given its world premiere – fittingly for the young Johannes – down by the docks of this amazing city of ours. I’ll be covering all three “facets” concerts: next week the Schumanns come to call.