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Name of Work

Brahms, Johannes (1833-1897)
Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 for clarinet and string quartet (1993)

Andantino/ Presto non assai, ma con sentimento
Con moto


Feb 21, 1993

Larry Combs, Clarinet
Peter Rejto, Cello
Steven Tenenbom, Viola
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Kathryn Votapek, Violin

Feb 22, 1993

Larry Combs, Clarinet
Peter Rejto, Cello
Steven Tenenbom, Viola
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Kathryn Votapek, Violin

BRAHMS - Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings

Composed in 1891

In the year 1890, when he was 57 years old, and one of the most revered composers in the world, Brahms startled the publishing house of Simrock (with which he'd dealt for years) by declaring unequivocally that the newly-completed String Quintet in G (Op. 111) would be his last composition; "it is high time to stop," says his letter, "and time for the young people to take over." He may or may not have meant this when he wrote it, but within a year he had changed his mind, and his catalogue contains several later opus numbers than 111, including the elegiac "Four Last Songs" and a set of organ chorale-preludes. Also dating from his last years is a remarkable group of chamber pieces involving clarinet, all inspired by the artistry and virtuosity of Richard Mühlfeld, who played first clarinet in the Meiningen Court Orchestra, an ensemble that had long specialized in Brahms's music.

Mühlfeld (1856-1907) played both the violin and the clarinet. Self-taught on the latter instrument, he became principal clarinetist in Meiningen at the age of 20, and spent several summers in the same capacity for the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra - which was probably no mean dual achievement, diplomatically speaking, since the Meiningen ensemble was closely linked to Brahms, while the one in Bayreuth was exclusively devoted to Wagner, usually perceived as Brahms's antithesis and rival (in fact, the two men came to respect each other's music, even though their approaches and aims were very different). A frequent visitor to Meiningen, Brahms must have heard Mühlfeld play many times, but a performance in March 1891 especially caught the composer's attention, and forthcoming almost immediately were a Clarinet Trio with cello and piano, and a Clarinet Quintet, with two violins, viola, and cello. Both works were introduced at private performances in Meiningen, at the home of one Countess Hedberg, in November of 1891. The string players who joined Mühlfeld for the quintet were the members of the Joachim String Quartet, headed by none other than Brahms's old friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom his Op. 77 Violin Concerto (and several other works) had been written some years earlier. Joachim took both the Trio and the Quintet with him to Berlin, where they received their public-concert premieres, and where the Quintet in particular was enthusiastically applauded.

Brahms also wrote for Mühlfeld two sonatas with piano, his Op. 120, which enrich the viola repertory as well as the clarinet library, and are played almost as often on the one instrument as on the other.

The Clarinet Trio and Quintet have been described with the words "somber" and "autumnal;" each is in a minor key, and in the quintet, slow-paced, sustained, descending thematic patterns are to be heard at the very beginning, setting a mood tinged with melancholy. It would be hard to classify either work as sad, however; certainly they do not have the overtones of mortality that can be ascribed to the "Four Serious Songs." The quintet's opening movement has the usual tempo marking of "Allegro," lively; its main motive, the basis of both of its contrasting themes and their development, will return in the finale. Several passages in the "Adagio" feature a dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin, a proceeding that echoes an earlier chamber-music masterpiece, identical in instrumentation: Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A. Brahms's "Adagio" also has echoes of the Hungarian gypsy music of which the composer was so fond, and which appears not only in his famous "Hungarian Dances" but also in the G Minor Piano Quartet and other pieces. In the quintet's third movement, the theme of the gentle "Andantino" introduction is transformed into the basis of the fast-paced "Presto" section. The "Con moto" finale, based in large part on a thematic cell from the opening, unfolds as a set of variations, which might equally well be heard as a process of continuous development and enhancement, decked out in the beautifully contrasting tone colors of the five intertwining instruments.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performed February 21 and 22, 1993

Performance Audio

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