Doing my best to get back from today's Noontime Concert at Old St. Mary's Cathedral (which happens to be in San Francisco Chinatown) before a threatening rain storm reminded me that the last time I had heard a live performance of Johannes Brahms' Opus 115 clarinet quintet had been in the McCarter Theater at Princeton University. There was a raging storm outside and a hole in the McCarter roof directly above where the cello was supposed to sit. (If memory serves me correctly, the ensemble was the Tokyo String Quartet performing with Richard Stoltzman.) This is little more than one of those odd free associations. It is certainly not meant to associate Brahms with any of those corny illustrations of Beethoven stomping his way through a wind-driven rain; and there is nothing "element-driven" about this particular quintet!
If anything, because of the high opus number, there is a tendency to assign it a valedictory quality. It is certainly a very poignant composition; so one can be forgiven for hearing it as a "farewell to life." However, poignancy was Brahms' strong suit for much of his life; and, given the works he composed after this one, there is no reason to assume that this was intended as a meditation on death. Rather, as we can read in the Wikipedia entry for Brahms, the work grew out of a new sense of discovery brought about by the clarinet itself:
In 1890, the 57 year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120 (1894).
This makes for an interesting parallel with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his K. 581 clarinet quintet for Anton Stadler in 1789, within two years of his death. Like Mozart, Brahms appreciated that the three registers of the clarinet constituted three distinctive "voices" and felt that each of these voices should "sing" in the course of the entire composition. While there is plenty of other chamber music for clarinet, these two quintets still occupy pride of place in the repertoire and show off the best abilities of their respective composers.
The Laurel Ensemble, which performed the Brahms quintet today, may not be as elevated as Stoltzman and his colleagues were; but that did not diminish from their performance. Clarinetist Ann Lavin commanded all three of her instrument's registers with equal capability, always finding just the right blend with the string quartet members. The result was not necessarily as poignant as other performances but had more to do with an almost meditative calm over the discovery of a new palette of sounds. Given all the things I have written about workplace pathology, this was the sort of performance that was the perfect escape from the strains of a workday.
Music that "brought Brahms out of retirement" was preceded by a work by the 25-year-old Ernő von Dohnányi, his Opus 10 Serenade for string trio. I cannot recall having an opportunity to hear this work in performance, so I know it only through the recording the Jascha Heifetz made in 1941 with William Primrose and Emanuel Feuermann. Dohnányi may not have had quite the elaborate sense of development that Brahms had. The work is in five short movements, the longest being the fourth in theme-and-variations form. Even there the variations are more straightforward than the exploratory variations in the final movement of the Brahms clarinet quintet (which ultimately lead back to the first theme of the entire work). Nevertheless, having been written in 1902, the Dohnányi trio is one of those works that looks back fondly on the gestures of nineteenth-century romanticism while searching for how to take composition in new directions. This piece certainly deserves to be heard more often, and it was good for the Laurel Ensemble to provide us with an opportunity.