quintessence  brahms & mozart clarinet quintets

with JOAN ENRIC LLUNA, clarinet

FCL 1982

"The CD comes together with an excellent translation of Brahms’ quintet, in which the wind instrument achieves such an integration with the strings that it truly resembles a symphony. The members of the Alexander offer that atmosphere, and a truly delightful sound." — El Pais

Notes on the Quintets

1. The fifth and highest essence in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the heavenly bodies
2. The essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form.

The clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms are among the most beloved of all chamber music compositions. Both are works of great geniuses at the height of their powers. These works are slightly unusual in their instrumentation, for while the addition of a fifth instrument to the standard string quartet captured the interest of many composers from Mozart forward, most often the viola, cello or piano have been the instruments of choice. The addition of wind instruments has been comparatively rare. What was it that attracted both Mozart and Brahms especially to the clarinet as a vehicle for such major works?

Certainly in each case the composer’s relationship to a particular instrumentalist was pivotal. But these associations may not answer the question completely. The clarinet seems uniquely suited to the task by virtue of its timbre and expressive characteristics, blending so naturally with the strings in tone, articulation, and, especially, in its capacity to taper the volume of a note to nothing. At the same time, the obvious potential for contrast remains, offering a composer a wide variety of textural possibilities: all five instruments can combine as an integrated whole; the clarinet can stand alone in opposition to the strings; and any of the five participants can create a dialogue in a myriad of combinations. In short, a wealth of philosophical implications is inherent in the ensemble.

Mozart wrote his quintet in 1789 expressly for Anton Stadler, clarinetist in the orchestra of the imperial court in Vienna. Mozart himself referred to the work as “Stadler’s Quintet.” Stadler, a fellow Mason and close friend for whom Mozart also wrote the Clarinet Concerto, seems to have treated Mozart rather shamefully in several financial dealings. However, if Mozart was aware of this, he remained close to Stadler in spite of it. The first performance of the quintet was given December 22, 1789 at a gala concert of the Tonkünstlersocietät in the National Theater in Vienna.

It was Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist in the court orchestra at Meiningen, who inspired Brahms to compose his last four instrumental chamber music works. Brahms fell in love with Mühlfeld’s playing (which by all accounts was not difficult to do), jokingly referring to him as “Fraulein von Mühlfeld, meine Primadonna.” The first performance of the Clarinet Quintet, a private one on November 24, 1891 in Meiningen, and the public premiere in Berlin on December 12 were played with the great violinist Joseph Joachim and members of his quartet.

Brahms was undoubtedly familiar with Mozart’s quintet and modeled his work after it in some outward aspects. In both works the clarinet enters with an ascending arpeggio after a brief opening phrase in the strings. The second movement of each quintet employs muted strings as a hushed accompaniment to the clarinet and the finales both employ theme and variations form. The resemblances, however, are no more than skin deep, as Brahms’ work, while adhering to classical structural outlines, epitomizes the Romantic style in its content.

Of special interest is the thrilling central section of the second movement which exemplifies Brahms’ fascination with Hungarian folk music. Here the clarinet’s passionate, rhapsodic display demonstrates Brahms’ confidence in the virtuosic and evocative nature of Mühlfeld’s playing. Brahms provides evidence of his genius by concluding the finale with the theme of the first movement. This creates a cyclical unity of the four-movement construction, while maintaining the organic integrity of the final movement’s theme and variations form. — Paul Yarbrough

Joan Enric Lluna’s notes on the Basset Clarinet

In this recording the instrument used in Mozart’s Quintet, K. 581 is a modern version of a Basset clarinet.

Mozart wrote his clarinet works for his dear friend and brother Mason, the clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler, who was always interested in improving the instrument, which was still quite new in the musical world of the l8th century. Stadler, together with the instrument maker Theodor Lotz, built a clarinet that was extended at the low register by a third, so that the lowest note of the instrument became a “C.” This extension not only made it possible to play lower notes, but, by changing the proportions of the tube, also changed its tone quality, making it similar to the sound of a very popular instrument of the period, the Basset horn. The Basset horn (which is in fact an extended clarinet in “F”) was Mozart’s favorite wind instrument, which he used in many chamber and orchestral works, including his Requiem.

Stadler’s improved instrument is named the Basset clarinet. In spite of its very special dark and deep sound, the instrument became obsolete. Possibly this was because of a tuning problem, but more likely it was because the instrument was uncomfortable to play. No composer is known to have written for it again.

There are clear evidences that Mozart’s Concerto K.622 was written for the Basset clarinet, but it is not clear that the Quintet K. 581 was. We know that Stadler used this instrument for many of his concerts where this piece appeared (the actual manuscript is lost). Most of the passages in the lower “Basset” register are based on an arrangement for piano and strings dated from the same period. Some other passages are of my own invention. In any case, the “Basset-like” quality of its tone seems to be more appropriate for this music. I hope that the listener will appreciate and enjoy it.

The instrument I play on in this recording is an extension of an “A” clarinet made by Jeremy Lowe in Greenwich, London, England. — Joan Enric Lluna

More Brahms:

Brahms & Schumann Piano Quintets

Brahms String Quintets and Sextets

In Friendship

The Brahms Project

More Mozart

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Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Opus 115

1.   Allegro
2.   Adagio
3.   Andantino; Presto non assai,
      ma con sentimento
4.   Con moto

Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, "Stadler's Quintet"

5.   Allegro
6.   Larghetto
7.   Menuetto
8.   Allegretto con Variazioni

More Brahms:

Brahms & Schumann Piano Quintets

Brahms String Quintets and Sextets

In Friendship

The Brahms Project

More Mozart