The Alexander Quartet Plays Quintets


MOZART: Clarinet Quintet in A. BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet in B min. / Eli Eban, cl; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL 2021

Having already scored artistic successes with the late string quartets of Mozart and the piano quintet of Brahms, the Alexander Quartet tackles here two popular works by those same two composers for clarinet quintet. In the Mozart, my gold standard is the recording by Benny Goodman with the Boston Symphony String Quartet, a sparkling performance that in my view has no rival, although I also like very much the recording by David Oppenheim with the Budapest String Quartet. Many of the Budapest Quartet’s recordings from the mid-1940s onward have not really worn well, but their performances of the complete Mozart Quintets remains a gem.

On this release, the Alexander group uses Eli Eban, who began as principal clarinetist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra but shortly moved on to the Israel Philharmonic for 13 seasons, including many occasions when he was clarinet soloist in various works. Since then he has become a busy chamber musician, particularly in the United States and Israel.

At the very beginning of the Mozart, it is obvious that the Alexander Quartet does not fall prey to the new Religion of Straight Tone. They very properly use a light, quick vibrato, which is what string players of the 18th century actually did when playing long notes and legato passages (look up the actual reviews written by 18th-century scribes; they constantly state how string players of that time emulated the singers, not the other way round!), switching to straight tone only for the fast passages to facilitate ease and speed of execution. And I am happy to report that Eban is, like Goodman and Oppenheim, a very expressive clarinetist. Not for him the modern tendency towards a uniform roundness and sameness of tone from top to bottom. On the contrary, his clarinet playing has multiple shades and colors; even in his upper register, he makes clear distinctions between forte and piano playing, and in his lower register—wonder of wonders!—he give us that delicious “woody” tone that was the glory of both Goodman’s and Oppenheim’s playing, and which I miss so much from most modern clarinetists. (See my previous post, Hating on Benny, for an outline of how classical musicians’ perceptions of Goodman have taken a 180-degree swing in the past 30-35 years, from despising and denigrating him to admiring and emulating him.) Eban’s variety of tone helps make the entire quintet sound wonderful; listen, for instance, to the up-and-down arpeggios at 6:10 in the first movement. He accents each note, giving them a slightly different stress and color, whereas many other clarinets just play them in a boring, round tone with no inflections.

Indeed, my sole caveat—and it is a small one—was that I felt the first and last movements were played just a shade slower than I like them. As Toscanini once pointed out regarding symphonic music (though it also applies to chamber music), some of this arises from the German misconception of what the Italian term “Allegro” means; it’s just not quite as perky in German playing as in Italian. But in the second movement, I felt that this performance captured all the color and nuance that the score demands, and in this respect they are better than my two favorite performances. How on earth they manage to create a sound that is blended while still retaining an individuality of sound in each of the four voices in the quartet is a miracle I have not yet figured out, but they do, and in this respect they equal some of the very finest of Italian groups such as the Quartetto Italiano and my latest love, the Quartetto di Cremona. In this movement, however, Eban’s playing is somewhat more placid and less varied than Goodman’s, though in the third and fourth movements he is again wonderfully varied in tone. As in their performances of the Beethoven and Bartók quartets, Alexander’s manner of enlivening the rhythm is wonderful to hear.

 Although a somewhat popular work and often recorded, the Brahms Quintet is actually more difficult to pull off well; of the 88 existing recordings listed at Arkivmusic, only about 16 get a recommendation. I would think that, when this disc is released on August 14 of this year, this one will also go to the top of their list. Once again, Eban’s wonderfully nuanced clarinet playing brings a wealth of color to the proceedings, as does the Alexander Quartet’s sense of rhythm. In fact, the rhythmic elements of this work are brought off better than in any other recording I’ve heard, as is their penchant for nuance. In the first movement alone, the quintet creates an entire world of sound and feeling without ever overdoing it or trying to bring attention to themselves. This was a feature of their Brahms Piano Quintets with Joyce Yang, and they equal their playing in that recording here.

They were also smart to realize that no matter how the clarinet part would be played, it was never going to blend perfectly with the strings because of their very different timbres, thus they focused on creating a lush sound world beneath the clarinet—note, particularly, leader Sandy Walsh-Wilson’s excellent but brief cello solos in the first movement, and how his sound “binds” the other strings from below. An interesting aspect of this quintet, as in the case of his string quartets, is the way in which Brahms laid out the piece, seldom thinking of the string quartet in terms of four independent voices playing against one another but rather, more often than not, in an orchestral layout, and the music’s themes and developments are written out accordingly. One can as easily imagine this work being orchestrated as a clarinet concerto as, say, the Schubert Grand Duo for 2 Pianos, which was orchestrated later in the 19th century by Joseph Joachim.

In toto, then, this is clearly one of the Alexander Quartet’s finest releases. I urge you to look out for it in August when it is released!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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