SC Chamber Players “Clarinet Ascending”

By Scott MacClelland

ALWAYS HUNGRY to discover what’s new in classical music, sometimes I must needs go back to consult the oracles. While they don’t change over time, I do. And so do those who by playing those designs today also put new interpretations on them. The four-movement clarinet quintets by Mozart and Brahms remain the Alpha and Omega of that rarified literature, the Brahms following the Mozart by a century, and, despite their style differences, they are patterned on the same classical templates and inspired by the greatest players of the clarinet in both generations.

Mozart famously died untimely at the age of 35. Brahms believed he had lived out his life by 60. (He died of cancer a month before his 64th birthday.) The clarinet quintets by both were written close to the ends of their lives.

The Sunday perforDSC08551_crop-e1405396756115mance in Aptos by members of the Santa Cruz Chamber Players was the quintessential definition of chamber music: a small group of friends taking the pleasure of playing intimate music together. They needed the audience less than the audience needed them.

Jeff Gallagher’s mouth (embouchure) looks like it was genetically designed for the clarinet. Yet even he had to deal with daunting challenges in playing a few bars, some squeaky, from the Mozart on an 18th century replica instrument like one the composer would have known. After his remarks about the two works, and the brief sample on the replica, he picked up his modern instrument and joined his colleagues to play the two 40-minute works back to back, separated only by the intermission.

Brahms was obviously well-acquainted with the Mozart. In both quintets, the first movements dominate. They both use the classical ‘sonata-allegro’ but with unprecedented invention. Not only does the Mozart dazzle with fresh ideas but its development—the passage between the exposition and recapitulation—is like nothing else I’ve heard in Mozart or anybody else. It (the development) came into its own when the strings alone took the lead in a fughetta, recycling textures and ideas from Mozart’s earlier quartets. Soon the clarinet began to decorate the strings with a series of arpeggios. The distribution of materials made each player equally responsible for the whole. The reading took a full 15 minutes including a repeat of the development. I can’t think of a similar example in Beethoven, who is famous for his developments.

The Larghetto is Mozart at his most seductive and romantic. I should mention that Gallagher plays with no vibrato which allows the clarinet to float the most ethereal and sensual tones, like the god Aeolus himself. The Menuetto contains two ‘trios’, those usually rustic departures that nevertheless retain the 3/4 meter. The first is given to the strings, while the longer second highlights the clarinet. The finale takes the form of variations. The mournful third variation, for strings only, is in the minor key.

For the Mozart, Susan Brown played first violin with Shannon Delaney on viola. They reversed roles for the Brahms. The ensemble also included violinist Eri Borcea-Ishigaki and cellist Judy Roberts.

The first movement of the Brahms is conflicted. Set in B Minor, it starts out sounding like a lullaby with its rocking 6/8 meter. It darkens for the more dramatic second theme before relaxing back into the first. But it gets restless and moody again on its way through an expanded development.

Something similar happens in the second (Larghetto) when sad musings on the clarinet give way to the major as it grows into an anxious crescendo, only to fade back into its now-familiar first theme.

While not a minuet, the short, cheerful third (Andantino) movement, displayed a highly conversational, quasi A-B-A form in which the B is a merry romp, though it grows dark at the end. The final movement which, like the Mozart, uses theme and variations, each of which was delineated from its neighbors, offers prominent string solos. At last, the first theme of the first movement reappears before the music fades to silence. One was left to contemplate a richly complex homage to the earlier composer masterfully told by the later one, and to savor in memory the splendid instrument that inspired both.