Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A very fine performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and an impressive performance of Zemlinsky’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano from Emma Johnson, John Lenehan and the Michelangelo String Quartet on a new release from Nimbus

The Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was a pupil of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) at the Vienna Conservatory. He became a close friend of Arnold Schoenberg and was influenced by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. He went on to hold appointments at the German Theatre in Prague and the Kroll Opera in Berlin before fleeing to the USA in 1938.

Perhaps his most famous work is his Lyric Symphony of 1923 but he also wrote a number of operas, choral and vocal works, orchestral works and piano works as well as chamber works.

What a good idea then for Nimbus  to couple Zemlinsky’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op.3 written in 1896 with Brahms’ well known  Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 written just five years earlier in 1891. Clarinetist Emma Johnson  joins pianist John Lenehan and the Michelangelo String Quartet on this new release.

Emma Johnson has already recorded a memorable disc of works by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann with John Lenehan (NI6153) . The Michelangelo String Quartet was formed in 2002 and consists of members already distinguished as soloists and chamber musicians and teachers, Mihaela Martin and Daniel Austrich (violins), Nobuko Imai (viola) and Frans Helmerson (cello).

Whilst Zemlinsky’s Trio was an early work, Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op115 (1891) comes from the end of his compositional life. The Michelangelo String Quartet bring some fine textures to the opening of the Allegro to which Emma Johnson soon adds her lovely tone. There are moments of fine incisiveness as well as a lovely blend of instrumental timbres, particularly in the more reflective moments. There is some lovely interplay between strings and clarinet with these players bringing a lovely sensitivity to this music with fine care of dynamics and tempi.

Emma Johnson brings a lovely melancholy to the opening of the Adagio – Più lento with a subtle support from the muted strings of the quartet. She brings her distinctive tone to the lovely little decorations that appear with an almost improvisatory feel. This is a particularly wonderful performance of the slow movement with some beautifully conceived string passages towards the wonderful coda.

The Andantino – Presto non assai, ma con sentimento brings a lovely light fluency and a terrific flow. There is a beautifully fleet trio section with more fine interplay between strings and clarinet as well as some lovely rich mellow clarinet passages.

In the Con moto these players bring lovely sonorities to Brahms’ opening theme before bringing some variations which are full of fine varying textures. There is a lovely moment when the final variation switches to a waltz rhythm with a lovely flow, fine harmonies and textures, beautifully done before the first movement is recalled and we approach the subdued coda.

This is a very fine performance full of charm, depth and lovely textures.

With the Allegro man non Troppo – Andante of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in D minor, Op.3 (1896) Emma Johnson, John Lenehan and Frans Helmerson bring some beautifully mellifluous sounds to the opening before the music soon takes off with some particularly strong playing from these artists. They find so much of Zemlinsky’s passion and, as the music progressively increases in power, each of these fine players brings their own impassioned intensity.  They take the listener through some moments of beautifully woven musical lines and textures before building through passages of some complexity and volatility. Emma Johnson reveals some exquisite phrasing with these artists building this movement impressively.

John Lenehan opens the Andante – Poco mosso con fantasia, gently revealing Zemlinsky’s lovely harmonies before the clarinet of Emma Johnson enters followed by the cello of Frans Helmerson to take the melody gently forward. There is a lovely conversation between clarinet and cello before, centrally, the con fantasia section brings some fine, restrained power. Later there is a lovely hushed section exquisitely done by these players and a lovely gentle coda.

The bubbling Allegro has an irresistible theme but Emma Johnson soon brings a longer breathed, flowing melody to which the piano and cello add a lovely texture. The opening re-appears before the clarinet and cello have a dialogue over a piano accompaniment. These players weave some very fine passages before the opening theme leads to the quiet coda that ends on a sudden louder phrase.

This is a lovely work given an impressive performance by these fine artists.

The recording made at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK is excellent and there are excellent booklet notes from Emma Johnson.

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