Brahms - Lesley Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams - MusicWeb International

"Not always comfortable listening" writes Alan George, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet viola player in a fascinating booklet note arguing the validity of another recording of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. He's referring to a line of interpretive tradition which runs in recent times from Reginald Kell to his pupil Alan Hacker to his pupil Leslie Schatzberger recorded here. It's a less cosy approach than the late 20th century norm and also one that takes Brahms' period performance practice and instruments into account, including less vibrato but more portamento than today and a more flexible approach to rhythm and tempo.

There's a bracing freshness and tension about the strings' introducing the opening theme, partly because they're using gut and contemporary style bows. This is immediately becalmed by the clarinet's version of it (tr. 1 0:13), gliding on Brahms' longer sustained notes. The contrast is also more marked because Schatzberger uses a copy of the original clarinet in A, as played by Richard Muhlfeld, more mellifluous, less pungent in tone than the modern clarinet yet still with sufficient dark hue for the descent to louder, more clamorous material at 0:33. The second group of themes, from 1:27, is given at first an impetuous assertiveness before taking in a melting (1:59) then manically energetic manner (2:15), then turning wistful in second violin (2:25) and clarinet in turn.

Now Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams play the exposition repeat from 2:46 in a touch more savoured, reflective and more rounded manner. I like this because it's subtly transforming the music in the light of the initial experience, another layer before its recapitulation. The development soon launches by 5:56 into writhing turmoil in this performance, rescued by a kindlier version (6:20) of what was originally (1:01) the spikiest of the first group of themes. You wouldn't guess it could do this, nor erupt into such a soulful clarinet fanfare (7:04). The spontaneity of this performance continues to grip.

The slow movement finds the poignancy of the clarinet solo opening captured in eloquent glowing tone with tender repeat by muted first violin. However, the central section (tr. 2 3:25) shows Schatzberger just as equal now to gypsy abandon, extravagant fiery gestures, now passionate, now simmering before a return to the opening which is all the more beautiful for being more rounded and accepting and what sensitive portamento, the occasional use of slide between notes, the first violin Lucy Russell finds in the repeat of the theme at 7:25.

The third movement begins with nonchalant folksy grace, but this performance points its growingly frolicsome nature, and its second section (tr. 3 1:24), starting with a faster version of the opening theme, is a busy and here notably volatile scherzo teeming with nervous energy. An assertive leaping theme emerges from the clarinet (1:45) and again in this account we hear a theme becoming more considered and rounded in its repeat as a duet with first violin (3:18).

The finale's theme and variations are unusual in that it's the second half of every unit that's repeated, so the emphasis is on development rather than initial impulse. The theme is given thoughtful treatment here. Variation 1 (tr. 4 0:55) is freer flowing in its light scoring. Variation 2 (1:52) is lively then more searingly lyrical, Variation 3 (2:56) delicately intricate, Variation 4 (4:20) sunnily content then Variation 5 (5:51) surprisingly intense in its ardent lyricism. The coda (6:44) brings back the first movement opening theme sensitively fused with the finale's, confirming the work's and this performance's intrinsic consistency of mood.

I compared another recording whose significance is acknowledged by Alan George, the 1937 by Reginald Kell and the Busch Quartet (Testament SBT 1001).

More notable in the earlier account is the stylish rubato, that fractional lengthening of key notes in a phrase and shortening of others, that moulds the phrases and makes the structure more appreciable. The first movement's second group of themes is more mellow, the development's turmoil less clear and therefore powerful though the humane response is emphasised by a more marked slowing of tempo. The spirited passages have the same freshness of approach as Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams but the recording, though good, lacks the sonority. So this Linn SACD will not give you as sweet, at times radiantly poetic and musing Kell and Busch interpretation, but a more vivid experience in more spacious sound of clearer and more dramatic contrasts in dynamics which makes the music seem more modern and open air in character.

Kell and Busch draw out the slow movement more, Kell's playing in particular with a vocal intensity and the return of the opening section is wonderfully poised. But the central section is less contrasted. Schatzberger sounds more like a gypsy. Her more flowing approach has a more troubled character at first and it's a joy to savour the serene refinement of the playing in duet with Lucy Russell when the first violin reaches its upper register (tr. 2 1:06) and appreciate here and elsewhere the clarity of the lower strings' accompanying texture.

I prefer the Kell and Busch third movement for its sheer unaffected pleasure and lighter and more graceful second section. Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams are a touch more crafted which makes for an edgier second section, though its internal contrasts are thereby made more explicit.

There's also more marked individuality about the Kell and Busch finale. The theme is shapelier and delivered with more feeling for the melody. Variation 1 is wistful and troubled, variation 2 dramatic and biting. Variation 3, however, has a quixotic delicacy with more than a hint of comedy in the clarinet's pirouettes which begin the second section. Variation 4 has an unaffected serenity. Variation 5 returns to wistfulness but with a more lilting manner and suggestion of a smile too this time before a contrasted elegiac coda.

Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams emphasise the flow of the finale's theme, making it more temperate. Their Variation 1 reveals more light and shade and there are similar chameleon mood changes in Variation 2, whose vigorous opening is subverted by the clarinet at the beginning of the second section. Their Variation 3 has a more pensive intricacy and the clarinet pirouettes are more coy. Their Variation 4 is gorgeously laid back but not quite as natural. Their Variation 5 has a fine internal momentum halted by a musing coda with a sensitively shaped clarification of the combination of elements of first and final movements.

The comparison brought home to me that Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams have created an interpretation which takes account of historic performance styles yet also has a more modern concern with the overall structure and flow of the work. Furthermore they're able to present the sonority and dynamic contrasts Brahms conceived with greater clarity and vividness than hitherto through surround sound.

I admire the enterprise of this SACD's programme which features the clarinet before and after Brahms right up to recent time in pieces you won't otherwise find on disc in quintet performance. Before is represented by Mozart in the opening Allegro movement of a Quintet (tr. 5) of which only Mozart's exposition survives. Duncan Druce, as he explains in his booklet note, has completed the movement taking clues from Mozart's practice in similar works. The result is certainly engaging. For starters the strings make a sunny proposition and the clarinet comments curvaceously. From 1:04 all plunge into a more quicksilver style, the low register of the authentic basset clarinet in B flat copy Schatzberger uses in gurgling fullness from 1:14. From 1:24 this is resolved in a more beauteously savoured musing.

The exposition repeat from 2:03 features some additional filigree decoration from the performers and is also more reflective. Druce's construction of the development from 4:08 offers more sober, shadier paths, but with the outline of the original material still clearly recognizable. The recapitulation (5:46) sports a slightly expanded, decorated clarinet melodic line before a graciously turned winking close.

The next item, Glazunov's Reverie orientale (tr. 6) begins with an even more sinuous, sultry clarinet solo, the tail of which (0:19) has a suggestion of the melodic repeated figures in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but that came 7 years later! Sweet strings in the sunny intensity of upper register lusciously reinforce and expand this impression from 0:24. The whole is repeated, as you come to expect from Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliams, with the artistry of a touch more reflection even though Glazunov's scoring is now denser.

At 2:17 the clarinet introduces a more assertive version across which the strings soon cast sighing descents. The clarinet and strings' writing - this version is Glazunov's original scoring - is finely interwoven but the climax, from 4:41, comes in the strings with the clarinet accompanying. Yet it's the clarinet who leads in the final phase (5:20), with calls that seem like the throes of desire which gradually echo into the distance. Very evocative and a totally different experience from the preceding works, as if emanating from a heat haze while time ambles. Here Schatzberger plays a clarinet in B flat.

Equally evocative and different in environment is the final work, William Sweeney's An Og-Mhadainn (The Young Morning) (tr. 7). Have a look back at the cover. The composer's booklet note describes it as "a human reflection on the peculiarly clear, bright atmosphere of some early mornings, early in the year." The clarinet opening, more vivacious than anything else on this SACD, is a kind of wake-up call before its smoother identification with sustained string line backcloth which stretches across the piece like a vast horizon, at first just glimmering, then subtly changing focus and presence from time to time.

Still the clarinet provides the liveliest movement and activity in which a song gradually evolves around an ostinato, that's a persistently repeated accompaniment figure. Vivid use of the extended basset lower register of the clarinet in A Schatzberger plays here and indeed the screaming upper register at 8:17 support this multiple personality. From 6:12 the experience is like being drawn into the raucous activity and creature squabble of the farmyard before a gradual and by contrast beautifully open calming to that gentle, comforting ostinato. Things will reach even keel. The whole is a terrific demonstration of Schatzberger's control and also another example of interpretive tradition as Sweeney is also a clarinettist and was a pupil of Alan Hacker who premiered this work.

This is a challenging disc for all the right reasons. Not always comfortable listening but rewarding. And a great range of perspectives.

MusicWeb International
31 July 2009