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Quartet of Quartets, Part One

New York
92nd Street Y
01/26/2002 -  
Johannes Brahms: String Quartet # 3; Clarinet Quintet
Jose-Luis Turina: Clemisos y sustalos

David Krakauer (clarinet)
Tokyo String Quartet

Although a difficult concept for modern listeners to grasp, it is nevertheless true that in his lifetime Johannes Brahms was not primarily known as a composer of symphonies but rather as the foremost champion of the art of chamber music. It was, in fact, this domestic espousal of conservative musical values that made the reluctant combatant the standard bearer against Richard Wagner’s “music of the future”. Brahms often used older forms in his compositions and, in the greatest work in the entire history of the chamber repertoire, employed the variation suite technique for his Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, a work which would turn out to be his last major effort. In this essentially Baroque method, used also by Haydn in the St. Anthony Chorale piece which yielded the tune for Brahms’ set of orchestral variations, the theme which is the source material for variant only appears after its creative permutations. In the lovely quintet, the main subject matter does not make its entrance until the final movement; we the audience are feted with the most exquisite combinations of sonorities while we wait. Brahms, like his contemporary Max Bruch, makes much of the similarities between the sounds of the viola and the clarinet and, unless one is observing a live performance, it is often impossible to identify which instrument is playing at certain key points. The melancholy sweetness of the wind instrument is perfect for Brahms’ mood of autumnal reflection. At its premiere, the incredible Adagio of the piece had to be encored instantaneously for an enchanted public.

For this reviewer, the most eagerly awaited series of concerts for this entire season has to be the four-part traversal of the chamber literature of Brahms by the venerable Tokyo String Quartet at the 92nd Street Y. The three string quartets will, of course, be featured, but each concert will also include guests destined to bring to life the four great quintets (clarinet, piano and the two viola works) as well as the two glorious sextets, while each event presents one of four American premieres in the process. Oddly enough, the series began at the end, this first evening featuring not only the final clarinet opus but the last quartet for strings as well. After some initial messiness in the first violin part, the group settled in to a light and airy but not very stimulating account of the final quartet. Having followed this ensemble for many years and through any number of personnel changes, I was a bit disappointed in this run of the mill rendition.

There was much to admire in their version of the Clarinet Quintet, the individual string lines well executed and technically flawless. However there were also quite a few problems. David Krakauer sports a beautiful, full tone, but his placement in the center of the group, sitting slightly towards the back of the stage, was not conducive to proper sonorous blending. One can only blow so hard into a reed instrument before losing pure intonation and, since Mr. Krakauer was not about to compromise his technique, he was often overwhelmed by the lushly played strings (in other, more successful, performances I have seen the clarinet positioned in front, stage right). Further, his phrasing is mundane and I did not have the sense that he was fully invested in the poetry of the piece, repetitions of vital passages played in the exact same manner as their original statements with little sense of development (or wonder). The performance also seemed hesitant and under-rehearsed, those extremely important transitions between wind and string consistently enunciated only with a slight pause, never flowing organically as they should (really the key to this entire work). Perhaps it was just an off night or my expectations were simply too high, but because of the Tokyo’s high level of delivered excellence, I am hopeful that this series as a whole will still be a memorable experience.

This concert tour will feature American premieres at every stop and this is both unusual and admirable. Jose-Luis Turina apologized in the program notes that the title of his piece is untranslatable. The closest English
equivalent appears to be a bunch of cheap effects.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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