Brahms: Clarinet Quintet, first movement

The Clarinet Quintet by Brahms is a masterpiece that poses deep interpretive challenges for every musician who takes it on. It is tuneful but contemplative. The music has motive energy, but it is always underpinned by a tragic inertia. Balancing those tendencies is difficult, and it makes for wonderful discoveries.

The piece has probably been recorded hundreds of times. I thought it would be fun to compare two markedly different performances today. (If you only have time for one of these, I’d suggest the second one.) In the first version, by five fine British musicians, there is a strong forward thrust and an emphasis on a smooth and blended tone, even while the clarinet is quite prominent in the mix.

Performed by Jack Brymer (clarinet) and the Allegri Quartet (13 minutes)

Here is a different performance of the same movement, this time in a Russian style. The Borodin Quartet prefers a slower tempo, more emphasis on the individual players, and frequent dramatic rubato.

Performed by Ivan Mozgovenko (clarinet) and the Borodin Quartet (15 minutes)

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