Brahms’ clarinet quintet (and the Delft Chamber Music Festival)

Last Friday I listened to Brahms’ clarinet quintet, opus 115, performed at the Delft Chamber Music Festival. This was preceded by the “Chansons de Bilitis”, music by Debussy on poems of Pierre Louÿs, and Fauré’s piano quartet opus 15. Afterwards I had a conversation with a friend about the fact that one should be open to different interpretations of music, and that this is something with which the Dutch in particular seem to have difficulty. Last year I wrote something on the same festival in connection with Midori’s performance (Midori, Nederland en het Delft Chamber Music Festival – in Dutch), which performance elicited very negative comments from gentlemen with upper class accents, sitting very close to me at the time, and this time it was not different. In particular the performance of Fauré’s piano quartet was criticized severely: not sufficiently restrained, etc. Last year Midori was too restrained, this time the performers were not sufficiently restrained. Very difficult to please these gentlemen!
Although I do not particularly like Fauré’s music, I thought that this performance was pretty good and in any case presented to us with great conviction. If I would have had the chance, I would have asked the performers to play it again from beginning to end to submerse myself a little more into it. I thought the performance of the chansons de Bilitis at the opening of the evening was absolutely superb, both by Clarlotte Riedijk, who seemed to me to have exactly the right type of voice for this, and the pianist Enrico Pace.

But, coming back to the Brahms clarinet quintet, I thought this was played fantastically (by which I mean: wonderfully), in particular by the clarinetist Sharon Kam. As happens very often (in my experience), the start is crucial, one is immediately “in it” of “out of it”. I heard a performance of the St Matthew passion in Seattle and prepared myself (at the time) for attempts to keep back the tears that come quite easily with the opening choir. But I did not need to prepare myself, because I was immediately “out of it” by what I heard there. And on Friday night it was the opposite: I was not prepared, but this time I had difficulties of the type I just described in listening to the opening choir of the St Matthew passion. The reason I didn’t expect it is that the string players usually indulge in a wide and slow vibrato in the opening forte which means (for me) that I can easily listen to that with dry eyes. But it was not like that this time, in spite of the remarks of neighboring gentlemen on the “unrestrained playing”. Perhaps the playing was “unrestrained”, but it did not bother me. Instead I asked myself the question, which (for some reason) I often have asked myself before: how would life be without Brahms’ music? If I did not know the intermezzi and rhapsodies for piano, the variations on a theme of Schumann, the three violin sonatas, the piano trios and piano quartets? And the clarinet quintet and the horn trio?

Is the clarinet quintet a “happy piece” (as one commentator puts it on youtube in the always interesting and amusing discussion there, where emotions run high)? I do not think so (that it is a “happy piece”). Perhaps Mozart’s clarinet quintet could be called a “happy piece”, but I think the Brahms clarinet quintet is a very melancholic piece. Even the beginning of it. The beginning theme returns at the end, “closing the circle” so to speak, and after the last notes sounded there was a long silence, very effectively triggered by the performers, by making no movement at all to encourage applause. Even this very ending makes it retrospectively clear that the beginning theme is not meant to be overly joyous. And concerning the second movement (the adagio movement): although the beginning of it is very quiet and perhaps not morose, there is a moment (in the piu lento), where the clarinet seems to shout to us: “No, no, it should not be like this!” So, if we imagine this movement played at a funeral, which no doubt has been done, although I have not experienced this, then, if the beginning would represent resignation, the outburst of the clarinet in the piu lento certainly does not represent that! At least, in my interpretation of it, which seemed to me also to be the interpretation of the performers on Friday night. But I also heard performances where the clarinetist happily plays these fast notes and then all the drama is completely gone!

There is also something extremely interesting in the way Brahms puts very dissimilar instruments together. In the horn trio for (natural) horn, violin and piano this is still more obvious than in the clarinet quintet, but the dissimilarity of the instruments always strikes me. And by letting the string players play “con sordino” in the second movement, Brahms even seems to stress the dissimilarity. On youtube Yuri Basmet is playing the clarinet part on a viola, and the string quartet is replaced by an orchestra. Just for fun I reproduce some of the discussion (including the spelling errors) on this on youtube below. There are two things to consider here: the replacement of the clarinet by the viola and the replacement of the string quartet. If one chooses to replace the string quartet by an orchestra, it seems more natural to me to keep the clarinet as the solo instrument. A clarinet can easily “blow away” a string quartet, but less easily a whole orchestra. But, anyway, the orchestral version doesn’t have it for me. And also, by making the instruments more similar (viola+string orchestra), the “loneliness” of the clarinet in its contrast with the string instruments is lost, which is indeed a loss, I think.

By the way, Sharon Kam had another fantastic performance in Messiaen’s quatuor pour la fin du temps on the last night of the festival, but also the other players were fantastic here. How far away was all this from the traveling virtuosi performances with lots of “encores”. After Messiaen’s quatuor pour la fin du temps an encore would have been impossible. What a treat! And how nice that a festival of this type where friends play together still exists!

Discussion on youtube.
Here is (via “copy and paste”) part of the discussion on Yuri Bashmet’s performance with orchestra (of Brahms’ clarinet quintet) on youtube (see: Brahms – Clarinet Quintet conducted by Bashmet pt.1-1):
CC.: I don’t see anything wrong with Bashmet playing viola here because Brahms specified the viola as an alternative to the clarinet.
However, there is absolutely no reason why Bashmet should be standing up as if it is a viola concerto. That is insulting. This is chamber music, not a show-off piece of music.
K. its so he can conduct i think.
CC. I believe it’s arrogance. There’s a reason why there are conductors.
J. As a violist I think, there is nothing wrong with transcribing it for an instrument of similar range and color. I am also a clarinetist, so I do see both sides of the argument. There are many pieces written for clarinet, and in my opinion few are as great as this. I do not see a problem with sharing the composition with viola, a very underestimated and underwritten for instrument. That being said, I think a lot of the natural color is lost my using an orchestra instead of a chamber ensemble.
HC. How arrogant of Bashmet to take Brahms’ beatuful melancholic calrinet quintet and turn it into a concerto for viola and orchestra! Not only that, but his playing is also very arrogant and virtuoso like. THMUBS DOWN. WAY DOWN.
K. How very ignorant and spiteful.
no.1 brahms wrote this as a quintet for clarinet OR viola, so he’s doing a brahms a favour by popularising the viola version, and he’s showing close minded arse holes like you how to play it differently.
no.2 you should respect bashmet for all he’s done for the viola, sure have an opinion, but get real, bashmets playing is hardly arrogant, its beautiful, and he is a very talented musician.
plus, you talk as you are better than him….like you could do better!
EE. Then perhaps how arrogant of Arnold Schönberg for the arrangement for chamber orchestra of this masterwork? No, enjoy the music, its beautiful, truly.

(This last comment was marked as “spam” in the discussion above on youtube. I could only see it by clicking on “Show” in “Comment(s) marked as spam Show”.)

Epilogue. I once read an interview with Toscanini, who was saying something like: “The most important thing is silence. Then you can hear (in your mind) the music as it is actually meant.” I think this is very true. As an example, after listening to Brahms’ clarinet quintet, I heard it “in my mind”. Strip the instruments, and try to listen to the music “in the mind’s ear”. Of course the clarinet should have its separate role, but the string quartet should be just one sound, answering (or be in dialogue with) the clarinet. Some performances lead more easily to this mind experiment than others. The Friday night performance induced this immediately (with me). I did not have to fight the performance first… This is how it should be.

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