..The Quintet is…suffused with what Edward Said, discussing late style in general, described as a ‘mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age’…
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115
Andantino – Presto non assai, ma con sentimento
In 1891, the 58-year-old Brahms began to feel that he had completed his life’s work and set out to put his personal affairs in order. That year, however, he returned to Meiningen where the reigning Duke supported a theatre with an orchestra directed by the likes of Hans von Bülow, Richard Strauss and, later, Max Reger. There, Brahms was struck by the excellent sound and technique of Richard Mühlfeld, the orchestra’s principal clarinettist. Brahms simply stated that the instrument could not be played more beautifully.
During the summer Brahms sent the score of the Clarinet Trio, Op.114 to his assistant, Eusebius Mandyczewski, calling it ‘the twin to a far greater folly’, which he was currently ‘feeding up’ – a reference, of course, to the Clarinet Quintet.
The Quintet is certainly a work of greater amplitude and scale than the Trio, and is suffused with what Edward Said, discussing late style in general, described as a ‘mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age’. The opening movement is an Allegro but one purged of any sense of strenuous activity; in a lilting 6/8 time, its assertive episodes are relatively few and set off against long melodies, frequently given out by the clarinet, that quietly stress dissonance on strong beats, and patches of bright stillness. The Adagio, which often features the introverted sounds of muted strings, derives from its simple opening motif – a repeated, falling, three-note figure – that forms a dramatic contrast with more passionate episodes in which the clarinet leads with florid writing that may reflect Brahms’s early love of Hungarian music.
After the often turbulent and dark-hued Adagio, the Andantino offers a gentle lyricism, with an only slightly faster, dance-like trio section. The finale is a theme and variations whose potentially limitless expansion is brought back to earth by a very slow statement of the opening movement’s first theme.
© Gordon Kerry, 2014
Republished by permission of Symphony Services Australia