BRAHMS: Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn in E-flat, op. 40. Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and Strings, op. 115.
The Chicago Chamber Musicians.
Summit Records DCD541 TT: 67:58

At the summit. Overall, I consider Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorák, and Fauré the main chamber-music composers of the Nineteenth Century. I don't think it a controversial bunch of choices. All created a large, high-quality amount. Brahms's chamber output, however, I find one of the most consistent in quality. You don't get the occasional awkwardness of Dvorák or the potboilers of Beethoven (some of which are quite nice).

The Chicago Chamber Musicians are a long-standing group of area musicians, many associated with the Chicago Symphony or with Chicago universities, and all very highly-regarded. Each one performs or not, depending on the requirements of the program, much like the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. They set very high goals in this CD.

The Horn Trio comes in the first glow of Brahms's maturity and counts as one of my favorite Brahmses. I just love the brilliant stroke of incorporating a horn into the chamber group, mainly because I love the sound of the horn. For me, it provides (along with the Aeolian harp) the soundtrack to Romanticism. However, it does pose formidable composition problems. I've never heard a completely successful performance of this work. The problems often come from the difficult balance among the ensemble. A horn can totally blast away a violin and very nearly cover a piano. Brahms, a horn player of sorts himself, knew this and specified a natural horn or Waldhorn. However, the part was so difficult for players that he reluctantly gave in and authorized the (louder) valve horn as well. My current favorite recording is the Marlboro Festival account from Michael Tree (violin), Myron Bloom (horn), and Rudolf Serkin (piano) on Sony 46249. It doesn't solve the balance problem, but driven by Serkin, it crackles like no other. Also, for a change, you get the all-too-rare opportunity to hear Michael Tree on the violin, rather than on the viola. Myron Bloom is simply one of the most stylish, refined horn players ever to cultivate an embouchure.

The work has four movements. The opening sings a very Brahmsian andante nostalgia-fest which occasionally rises to passion. The second movement, a "hunting" scherzo, blows fanfares and "view-halloos" over galloping rhythms, with occasional breaks (in the trios) for Romantic melancholy. This continues in the brooding slow movement, for me the apex of the entire score, just in terms of the equality of the writing for each instrument. Nobody gets to hog the spotlight and Brahms constantly changes the listener's focus with masterful textural shifts and beautifully subtle counterpoint. A memorable moment: horn in a slowed-down fanfare motif -- an adumbration of the main finale theme -- with the violin (!) on the bottom, and then the switch, the violin this time on top. The finale itself amounts to another scherzo, although not at all in the strict form. Indeed, the form is unusual -- a cross of rondo and sonata. However, it blazes to great effect.

In the matter of the Horn Trio's balance, the Chicago Chamber Musicians -- violinist Joseph Genualdi, horn Gail Williams, pianist Robert McDonald (a recital partner for an A-list of soloists) -- err on the side of caution. Williams is so careful not to tromp on anybody's lines that she sometimes sounds as if she's got her back to the microphone. In certain places, she might as well not be there at all. I keep comparing them to the Marlboro crew. Genualdi and McDonald (a Serkin pupil) are more subdued than Tree and Serkin himself. Williams has a beautiful, full, golden tone even at low dynamic, but she doesn't shape as subtly as Bloom. They seem to want to turn what I think of as a relatively youthful and impetuous work into late Brahms, which is fine. Brahms can take it. I may prefer Wilder and Woollier, but I do think Stately valid. They hit the authentic Brahms "oceanic" roll of the music -- the feeling that you're on a large ocean liner pulling out of the harbor -- right away, something that escapes many performers and something very typical of Brahms. They really hit their stride in the slow movement, which suits their approach down to the ground.

Brahms's final burst of chamber music, as many have noted, was inspired after his "retirement" by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Here we find the Clarinet Trio, the two clarinet sonatas (also for viola), and the Clarinet Quintet. Because of the dominance of the clarinet, writers tend to talk of these works as appendages to Mühlfeld, missing, I think, larger points. We think of Brahms as continuing classical procedures and structures in the face of Liszt and Wagner's "organic" music. The late works don't really stray from the general classical path for the organic woods, but you marvel at how broad that path has become in all the late music. Tonality, though neither abandoned nor as free as late Liszt, becomes ambiguous. You feel like you're hovering "between" keys, as it were. Of course, this effect goes back to Mozart, at least. However, in late Brahms, it becomes more of a norm, as opposed to a momentary effect. Classical form, though it lurks in the background, since its delineation depends on changes in key, becomes correspondingly looser. In most of the works of this period, for example, Brahms doesn't repeat his expositions, although the Clarinet Quintet stands as an exception. It's as if Brahms has so deeply absorbed formal classical principles, he doesn't have to think about them. He has become freer to shape time in his own way.

The Quintet has four movements: Allegro, Adagio, Andantino, and Theme and Variations. People inevitably make comparisons to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, and one can't help but suspect that Brahms knew that score, especially since the last movement of the Mozart is also a theme and variations. Many consider this Brahms's finest chamber work. I like too many others just as well to choose. At some level, it's like wondering whether Superman could beat up Captain Marvel. However, it does remind me of listening to an incredibly rich and insightful conversation, more than, say, the Horn Trio does. It inhabits the same rarified air as the Schubert Cello Quintet.

The first movement opens with a paradox. Brahms tells us that the movement is in b minor. Yet it begins apparently in D major and indeed cadences in that key. After that, it sidles into the minor, with an arresting, off-the-wall modulation into remote keys before it finds its way back home via, again, D major. Aside from this under-the-hood stuff, it inhabits the emotional territory of the fourth symphony and the double concerto, but at a less intense pitch. The line moves graciously (in 6/8). The Chicago Chamber players ride the ship beautifully, keep everything moving along, and show you the contrapuntal innards of the engine. It's like riding in a Rolls. In the Adagio, the clarinet takes center stage, beginning with a lovely long-breathing melody. I've always found the movement enigmatic, hard to connect with, although very beautiful. At times, it sounds to me like a Hungarian zither player or fiddler warming up, especially because of the prominent clarinet roulades in the middle section.

The Andantino by any other name is a Brahms allegretto, like those found in the symphonies in place of a scherzo. It's warm and huggable. Even slightly fretful contrasts don't long disturb its bonhomie.

The theme-and-variations finale strikes me as only slightly less complex than the opening movement. The string writing shows prodigal invention (how did the canard that Brahms couldn't write for strings get started?) and great textural variety. But the ending draws me the most. One expects some grand peroration, as you find in the Haydn Variations, but this sucker just ends. Brahms has said all he has to say and clams up. The exit is clean, rather than dramatic. Given the richness of the variations, I must say it brings me up short.

I have to admit that this isn't my favorite account of the Clarinet Quintet. I like the sumptuousness of the Amadeus with Karl Leister and the gravitas and clarity of the Emerson with David Shifrin (who may be my favorite clarinetist), both issued by DG. Also, the DG sound is better. However, I wouldn't throw this one away. Again the CCM has Brahms in its bones. Larry Combs, principal clarinet of the CSO, has a suave tone, if not the unearthly, Fischer-Dieskau level of phrasing from Shifrin. First violinist Joseph Genualdi leads but doesn't overwhelm. Everybody gets his or her say. The ensemble decisions are well thought through.

However, the most persuasive reason for the disc is the coupling. I don't know of any other album, other than "historic" ones, that pairs these works on a single disc and gives you readings at this level. Furthermore, the Amadeus-Leister is part of a DG box. The Chicago Chamber Musicians give you a viable alternative.

S.G.S. (November 2010)