Sublimities

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Mozart: Clarinet Quintet & Oboe Quartet

Arthur Grimiaux, violin / George Peterson, clarinet / Pierre Pierlot, oboe / Koji Toyoda, violin / Max Leseuer, viola / Janos Scholz, cello

Philips 6500 924

The clarinet used to annoy me without fail. It always sounded like a teakettle with a hangover. Then I heard Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet performed by the Emerson, and I changed my tune. In the Adagio second movement, there’s a bracingly gorgeous section where the strings sustain a deep vibrato while the clarinet flits around it. After that, the clarinet became a friend, if an inconstant one. The instrument is especially suited to the ethereal and the mysterious, finding one of its best spots in Olivier Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, and a other works of an Impressionist nature.

But it’s possible that no one has surpassed Mozart in composing for the clarinet. His quintet for the woodwind, along with the later Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622, are two of his most profoundly lasting works. And, for me, the 1789 Quintet (perhaps the first to be composed for that particular ensemble) is total sublimity in 4 movements.

Mozart met the famed clarinetist Anton Stadler at a Freemason meeting, who premiered both the aforementioned works. Up to then the clarinet was an orchestral mainstay, but hadn’t yet been recognized for solo potential. Mozart kickstarted the instrument’s solo career with this quintet.

Here, the clarinet is given an operatic voice with a near-tangible stage presence, while the quartet of strings provide a concerto-like accompaniment that becomes delightful intermission music when the clarinet isn’t in the spotlight. Structurally and emotionally, it’s crisper and warmer than almost anything from the period. But it’s the slow Larghetto that gets you. Beginning with an aria from the clarinet that’s sympathetically joined by the violin, it then drops into soulful longing, with the rest of the strings playing softly under the clarinet’s wistful monologue. The Clarinet Quintet is one of those rare bits of music that sounds like it’s  carrying on an intimate conversation with each listener.

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