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Clarinettist Lesley Schatzberger and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, both of whom have established well-deserved reputations for thoughtfully delivered and historically considered performances, present a new recording of works by Brahms, Mozart, Glazunov and Sweeney.
But back to the present, and that same dilemma of conscience: is another recording of this quintet really justifiable? If those original answers were valid then, it has to be conceded that they are still valid now – but with extra dimensions: to begin with, the teacher-pupil lineage continues from Alan Hacker to Lesley Schatzberger and with it follows a similar school of performance. But in the meantime Lesley had had a copy made of Mühlfeld’s own clarinet (see note above), and from her experience of this wonderful instrument we can learn still more about the piece and how it might have sounded. When playing with this instrument it is obviously appropriate for the quartet to make use of contemporary style bows and gut strings – as Robert Pascall underlines: ‘the difference in tone-quality between gut and metal strings is far from small, [even though] this may seem a small matter of instrument setting-up’. Hand-in-hand with this is the need to adhere to certain aspects of performance practice which we know to have been in favour at that time and in that place. So we have sought the advice of such authoritative Brahms scholars as Professor Pascall himself: his various papers and publications have provided invaluable insight, as well as reassuring evidence that for most of our own thirty-plus years of acquaintance with this amazing work we have been on something like the right track – thanks to Hacker, Schatzberger, Kell, Busch et al. We are reminded that ‘bow strokes were much as now, although the art of portato bowing has been largely lost, and the use of off-string bowing was not as favoured then as it is today. The normal way of playing … until the present [20th] century was without vibrato … used primarily as an ornament, for accented notes, and for sustained notes in impassioned and lyrical melodies. And secondly, players of Brahms’s time would all have used portamento, the gliding ornament so tellingly described by Carl Flesch as ‘the emotional connexion of two notes’.’
Most important of all, perhaps, is a prerequisite embracing of Brahms’s attitude to rhythm, tempo, and rubato, and it is fascinating that many of Professor Pascall’s observations originate in accounts from contemporary musicians reporting on his own playing or conducting. For example, we learn that Sir Charles Villiers Stanford recalls that Brahms’s tempo was ‘very elastic’, the pianist Fanny Davies writes of his ‘expansive elasticity’ – confirming awareness that ‘he used strong articulations between phrases, tempo modification and rubato – tempo modification was a recognised and established part of performance practice of the age, and that, provided always it is applied with discretion, it remains fully appropriate to the interpretation of Brahms’s music’. Indeed, it had been so for some time previously, to judge by similar remarks made on the subject by Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner, all of which lend weight to the argument. Brahms himself wrote to the violinist Joseph Joachim in January 1886, ‘… I often cannot do enough pushing forward and holding back, so that passionate or calm expression is produced more or less as I want it’ – alluding also to the conductor Hans Richter’s ‘uncomprehending stiffness’. Eugenie Schumann (youngest daughter of Robert and Clara) recounts that ‘When he came to passionate parts, it was as though a tempest were tossing clouds, scattering them in magnificent fury’ – we could hardly fail to remember this striking illusion when approaching the surging semiquaver triplets in the first movement exposition, extended still more vehemently in the recapitulation (‘… to be taken at a distinctly increased tempo’ – Will Crutchfield). Of specific significance is a remark by Brahms’s pupil Walter Blume concerning the third symphony’s finale: ‘The semiquaver figures in the strings at [letter] O are played so that one dwells somewhat on the first semiquaver, quasi tenuto’ – these groups are all marked with a ‘hairpin’ decrescendo, exactly the same as the semiquaver groups in the opening bars of the quintet, where a similar expressive rubato has always seemed to us to be obligatory.
It has since been rewarding to be able to hear (at last) the recording made in 1941 by our mentor Sidney Griller, in which his quartet was joined by Frederick Thurston – in many ways even finer than Kell/Busch, but underlining yet again how far perceptions of the quintet have changed since those days. No less invaluable are Tully Potter’s own observations (in the accompanying notes) with regard to the handed-down performing traditions for the quintet – not only via Kell/Drapers but also from Adolf Busch back to his teacher Bram Elderling who, as leader of the Meiningen Quartet, had performed it frequently with Mühlfeld himself. In all these accounts we can hear clear evidence for Pascall’s painstaking researches.
It goes without saying that none of these factors will in themselves guarantee a successful or convincing performance, and it has to be accepted that to 21st century ears the enclosed realisation may not be to all tastes, given the changing style of execution this piece has undergone over the past few decades. Undoubtedly what you will hear is more confrontational, red-blooded, wilder, at times angrier, less ‘mellow’ than might have been expected, with generally faster tempi and more extreme dynamic contrasts. Not always comfortable listening, to be sure … But, as Robert Pascall concludes, ‘knowledge about historically appropriate performance styles does not restrict so much as nourish interpretation’.
Much has been written about the impressively tight structure and thematic unity of this quintet, originating in Brahms’s painstaking studies of Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical forms (for example canon, fugue, and a wide range of dance idioms), together with the music of those composers he included in his own concert programmes as a pianist: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann. So, whilst further analysis might be considered superfluous here, some thoughts on the Adagio could be appropriate, in the light of that movement’s profound influence on the work as a whole, allied to the demands it makes and the precedents it sets for an attempt at an ‘authentic’ realisation in concert/recording. Alan Hacker always insisted – following his predecessors’ example – that its ‘gypsy clarinet and fiddle’ must be the centrepiece of the entire work, forthrightly setting the tone of the whole interpretation, ‘with the other strings imitating the clangorous cimbalom’ (the origin of Brahms’s writing of long notes with fast elaboration is identified by Pascall in the slow lassu sections in the Verbunkos). Nothing cosy or ‘Autumnal’ here … Certainly we can recognise the spirit of Weber and his powerful effect on the course of German Romanticism, but now unforgettably and unmistakably supplemented by Brahms’s own long-standing affinity with Zigeuner culture – no doubt underpinned by his friendship with the great Hungarian violinist Joachim. And so the stormier passages in the first movement, not to mention the high voltage of the finale’s second variation, can rightfully take their place in the overall scheme of things; indeed, these variations reveal themselves as a worthy summation of the quintet’s various moods and temperaments, such that we find the yearning B major sonorities of No 4 already to have been heard in the Adagio’s outer sections. Even the whimsical skittishness of variation 3 seems to look back to the preceding movement, where B minor is subtly combined with its relative major key in a fusion of genuine scherzo with the gentler, more pastoral replacement familiar from so many of his symphonies and chamber works. I’m grateful to Geoffrey Keating for pointing out that the theme itself bears a remarkable likeness to the descending sequence of notes, derived from the letters of his wife Clara’s name, which Schumann used so frequently as a private musical greeting to her (most notably in the Fantasia in C, Op 17). Since virtually all the main material of the clarinet quintet is so closely inter-related, would it be too far fetched to suggest that the work might even represent a secret expression of longing for Clara …?
Furthermore – to return to the Adagio – Robert Pascall has convincingly traced the origins of the outer sections of this movement back to the Sarabande und Gavotte for piano from 1854/5 – thereby demonstrating that, even in the most elegiac music of the quintet the element of dance is never far away (following the example of his great German predecessor J S Bach). Whilst the Sarabande’s journey to this Adagio was undertaken via the F major string quintet (Op 88) the Gavotte can be seen to have pursued a similar course, following a change of rhythm for the scherzo of the G major string sextet (Op 36), leading to its eventual arrival at the opening of the clarinet quintet itself. Extraordinary – yet perhaps not so unexpected – that this masterpiece from the culmination of its creator’s career should have originated from so near its beginning: if the clarinet quintet has always appeared to us all to draw from and summon up a lifetime of experience, then the origins of the material itself would appear to back up our impressions persuasively and aptly.
Mozart did not, like Beethoven, leave extensive sketches for his most important compositions. Indeed, it seems that he usually had at least the broad outlines of a work clear and settled before committing anything to paper. However, there do exist quite a number of beginnings of compositions that were never finished, most of them dating either from c1779 (just before he left Salzburg for Vienna) or from the last years of his life. These sketches range from a few bars in length to substantial torsos like the Mass in C minor. Somewhere in between these extremes come a number of instrumental movements where Mozart more or less completed an expository section. In some cases it is clear that Mozart discarded them in favour of something better – for example, there is a sketch for an alternative finale for the A major clarinet quintet (K581) which comes into this category – but usually the reason for terminating composition is more uncertain. Some of these incipits may have been abandoned in a spirit of self-criticism, but others are so good as to suggest other reasons why they were never finished – pressure of more urgent work or lack of an immediate opportunity for performance. The B flat quintet movement is unique in that the surviving manuscript breaks off suddenly, at the bottom of a page, after just three bars of development section. This makes it likely that Mozart wrote more of this piece than has been preserved; the Mozart scholar Alan Tyson has even suggested he may have completed the movement. Unless further pages of the manuscript turn up, however, it must be regarded in the same way as other examples of incomplete Mozart. The manuscript was at one time thought to date from 1787, though the style of the music and the scoring for basset clarinet always suggested to me some time nearer to the complete clarinet quintet of 1789. Indeed, modern research into the water-marks on the paper has now placed it in the last two years of Mozart’s life – 1790-1. The would-be completer has several Mozartean models to consult: opening Allegro movements in the same key and metre (3/4). The closest of these is the string quartet, K589, but the piano sonata, K570, and earlier works like the symphony, K319, the duo for violin and viola, K424, and the divertimento, K287, all provide valuable pointers as to how Mozart would have worked out and recapitulated his material. We do Mozart a disservice, however, to imagine that, even with these models, we can adequately represent his intentions. The challenge is to get as close as possible, and at the same time provide an opportunity to hear this music at all.
Like the completed A major clarinet quintet this movement was intended for the ‘basset-clarinet’, with its extended lower range down to written C.
Alexander Glazunov is not a composer whose music is discussed with any great enthusiasm these days – if it is discussed at all, for it is certainly performed with very little regularity (with the exception of the wonderful Violin Concerto, Op 82, which is worthy of a place alongside the more celebrated Dvořák or Bruch). At a very early age Glazunov possessed the gift of an extraordinarily quick and brilliant musical mind, so that his first symphony was performed – with great success, and the approval of Liszt – before he was seventeen. His talents were cultivated by such teachers as Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov into a formidable technique, and the resulting effortlessness with which he was able to compose characterises virtually his entire vast output.
Should he be remembered chiefly for his masterly realisations of Borodin’s unfinished compositions (notably the opera Prince Igor and the third symphony), or as Shostakovich’s mentor at the Leningrad Conservatoire, this would be to devalue grossly the appeal of his own richly rewarding music. Composed in March 1886, with the experience of two of his seven string quartets already behind him, this haunting little piece actually grew out of an Adagio for two clarinets. Although it was orchestrated the following month the composer retained a preference for the more intimate chamber version: firmly in the Russian tradition (sounding at times more Borodin-like than Borodin!): a style at once so recognisable that the national characteristic supposedly evoked by the title barely adds a foreign accent: the colourful imagination of a confirmed Russian, dreaming of far-off lands.
Có a dh’ éireas anns a’ mhadainn
’S a chì ròs geal am bial an latha?
An Òg-Mhadainn (The Young Morning) was commissioned by Youth and Music Yorkshire, at the request of the distinguished clarinettist Alan Hacker. They requested a solo piece for basset clarinet with simple accompanying parts, so that a group of young people might be able to play them without much prior rehearsal; but it is also possible to use a pre-recorded backing tape. The title page of the score quotes a line from A Girl and Old Songs by the Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean – in translation:
Who rises in the morning
and sees a white rose in the mouth of the day?
The piece is a human reflection on the peculiarly clear, bright atmosphere of some early mornings, early in the year. The musical means are simple – a set of variations on a melodic line which also provides its own accompaniment ‘punctuation’, over a background, atmospheric, ostinato ‘carpet’ of sound, around which the clarinet sings, dreams and plays – sometimes with the discipline of Ceol Mor, and at others with the wildness of birds.
Alan George, Duncan Druce & William Sweeney © 2006
The original from which my instrument is copied was made for Mühlfeld in the 1870s by the Munich maker Georg Ottensteiner, and it survives, with its B flat partner, in the Staatliche Museen in Meiningen. The unique fingering system was devised by Carl Bärmann, the son of Carl Maria von Weber’s inspirational clarinettist Heinrich Bärmann. It was Mühlfeld’s playing of a concerto by Weber which had stunned Brahms by its eloquence and beauty in 1891. A firm friendship was formed, and Brahms nicknamed Mühlfeld Fräulein Klarinette, meine Primadonna and the nightingale of the orchestra.
Mühlfeld remained faithful to his Ottensteiner instruments to the end of his life in 1907, despite the fact that the more technically advanced Oehler clarinets, made in heavier ebony wood, were becoming prevalent in Germany and Austria by then. With its straighter bore and lighter wood, the instrument has a less boomy and more focussed quality than later clarinets, with more potential for delicacy and varied colours – well worth the challenges the slightly idiosyncratic fingering system imposes on the modern player.
Lesley Schatzberger © 2006