BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet (40’)
BRAHMS 3 Intermezzi for piano Op.117 (16’)
DOHNÁNYI Sextet (30’)
Ensemble 360’s clarinettist Robert Plane takes centre stage in this programme of sumptuous Brahms and bravura Dohnányi. The concert opens with an autumnal quintet full of subtle turns between languid themes, playful conversation and wistful melodies. Dohnányi’s unusually scored sextet brings together piano, clarinet, horn, violin, viola and cello to create a dramatic and sassy piece that draws on the influences of Brahms, waltzes and dance-like jazz.
BRAHMS Johannes, Clarinet Quintet Op.115
Andantino. Presto non assai, ma con sentimento
In 1890, while only in his late fifties, Brahms declared that he was retiring: the String Quintet Op. 111 was to be his farewell from composition. A few months later he heard Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra, and wrote to Clara Schumann that ‘the clarinet cannot be better played’. It inspired him to carry on composing. In the summer of 1891 Brahms went to stay at Bad Ischl in the Salzkammergut where he wrote the Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet. Mühlfeld gave the premieres of both works on 12 December 1891 in Berlin. On hearing a performance in London the following year, George Bernard Shaw wrote that ‘it surpassed my utmost expectations’, and when the conductor Arthur Nikisch heard the Quintet, he fell to his knees in front of Brahms.
It has a rare and hypnotic beauty, thanks to its pervasive mood of melancholy, occasionally interrupted by quiet rapture, or by fiery gypsy figurations. The opening is played by the strings alone (like Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet), from which the clarinet emerges as if through the mists. Ideas gradually become more fully formed, and Brahms uses the tension between the home key (B minor) and its relative major (D major) to great expressive effect. The slow movement is a song-like Adagio, interrupted by a clarinet outburst in which Brahms evokes the improvisations of gypsy players. The third movement is a gentle interlude, with a more animated central section, and the finale is a theme and variations in which music from the opening movement is recalled at the end, to magical effect.
© Nigel Simeone
BRAHMS Johannes, Three Intermezzos Op.117
Andante non troppo e con molto espressione
Andante con moto
These three short pieces were composed at the Austrian spa town Bad Ischl in 1892 and first performed in Berlin on 6 January 1893 by the pianist Heinrich Barth. Like the first of the Ballades Op.10, the first Intermezzo is based on a Scottish poem printed in Herder’s collection, this time a lullaby (and, informally, Brahms sometimes called the whole set ‘Lullabies’). Clara Schumann was enchanted by these pieces when she first saw them, telling Brahms that ‘In these pieces I at last feel musical life stir once again in my soul’. When Brahms’s publisher Simrock suggested using Lullabies instead of Intermezzi as the official title, Brahms’s response was endearingly curmudgeonly: ‘It should then say, lullaby of an unhappy mother or of a disconsolate bachelor’.
© Nigel Simeone
DOHNÁNYI Ernst von, Sextet in C Op.37
Allegro con sentimento
Presto, quasi l’istesso tempo
Born in Hungary, Dohnányi’s early compositions had been praised by Brahms, and he always had a strong sense of being part of the Austro-German Romantic tradition. In this respect he was very different from his classmate at the Budapest Academy, Béla Bartók, but his music is always beautifully crafted and has very individual harmonic touches. The Sextet for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn was completed on 3 April 1935 and it is the most unusually scored of his chamber works. It was first performed in Budapest on 17 June 1935, with the composer at the piano, and received warm reviews. One critic specifically praised the unusual choice of instruments, commenting that ‘the combination … is neither coincidental nor arbitrary.’
The musical structure is unified by Dohnányi’s use of a dramatic rising motif – often on the horn – that is first heard right at the start. The first movement is brooding and tense, but ends with hope (the rising motif returning in triumph). The Intermezzo includes a rather sinister march, while the third movement is a set of variations that includes one that is scherzo-like. This leads directly into the finale – an almost dizzyingly ebullient movement which suggests a kind of jazzed-up Brahms.
Nigel Simeone © 2011