I have a number of recordings of the piece but my favorite is the one Harold Wright did with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. It is on Philips and it is coupled with the Mozart Quintet.
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Beautiful piece indeed! Op.115 was the first time that a major composer wrote a clarinet quintet after Mozart's masterpiece. Talk about confidence in your work.
I second the recommendations of the Harold Wright and Reginal Kell recordings; however as far as the Kell goes I prefer his recording with the Fine Arts Quartet on Decca (DL9532), somewhat more poetic playing IMO. Yes, it is a mono recording, but very tonally natural. I don't know if it is available on CD.
My very favorite however is the Karl Leister recording with the Amadeus Quartet on DG (DG139354). Beautiful playing all the way around and I particularly like the way that the clarinet was recorded.
This is mostly, but not all, speculation on my part; but I suspect that Leister's style and approach to the instrument is closer to what Brahms heard in the playing of the great clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld that so impressed and inspired him to write the piece. As great as Wright and Kell were in their own right, they are each the product of different schools of clarinet playing; Kell the English school and Wright the American school. Obviously, this is not necessarily a handicap, but there are very important differences in each of those schools that can possibly give clues as to what exactly the composer had in mind when he conceived the work; details that get lost or forgotten over the generations of players. Even the instruments used are different; American and English clarinetists use the Boehm system clarinet, German players use the Albert system clarinets. A great composer always takes into account the idiocyncracies, strengths, and limitations of the instrument he is writing for, and that in turn can shape the composition; although in this case the technical differences between the instruments are relatively minor and not as important as the general differences in concept of tone production and phrasing that exist between German, American, and English clarinet players.
Thea King and the Gabrieli Quartet on Hyperion are superbly recorded, and the performance will move you, especially the Adagio, which has made me cry.
I tried the Philips duo version of this piece and didn't care for it. Can't remember the group or principal. I like many other issues in this series. It might be the best classical bargain available. Many of their recordings from mid-60's to late 70's are unsurpassed, and the performances are frequently first rate.
Hyperion also has a double CD bargain line available, and the Brahms quintet might be in one. I bought mine years ago as a single disc which includes Brahms clarinet trio.
I've owned a few other unmemorable versions over the years.
I appreciate the recommendations in this thread, as the piece is one of my favorite chamber works. I first became acquainted with the piece through a chamber music course in college, and the version I bought back then, a Columbia Masterworks recording of the Budapest String Quartet with David Oppenheim, has always been my favorite performance (it always seems that way, the first version you hear becomes a benchmark), although the recording is a typical bright Columbia effort. I've been looking for better recorded versions of excellent performances of this piece, generally being disappointed (the Reference Recordings version, for example--well-played and recorded but somehow didn't move me), but there are plenty of new ones to try (including a Decca reissue on vinyl I haven't opened yet, gotta try that one), thanks to you all.
Please kindly share your finding(s) with us.
Please kindly provide us more thought on the statement that "Leister's style and approach to the instrument is closer to what Brahms heard in the playing of the great clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld....". Last night I did revisit this recording twice on different machines. The music made my eyes wet.
Also I am pretty surprise that so many people love this piece. Probably after this, we should start another one on Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No.1, op. 11 or Mendelssohn's String Octet, op. 20.
Brahms met Richard Muhlfeld in 1891; he had recently decided to retire from composing large orchestral works to concentrate on chamber music. He was to write a chamber piece for viola and upon hearing Muhlfeld play, the story goes, decided to write for the clarinet instead. The clarinet trio op.114, clarinet quintet op.115, and the two sonatas for clarinet and piano op.120 (the viola may be substituted for the clarinet in these).
There are three predominant "schools" of clarinet playing today: French, German, and American. By school is meant the characteristic traits associated with the sound and performance style and techniques of players with roots in those particular countries. In the case of the French and the German schools these roots go back a couple of hundred years more than in the American. There are many differences that, as many clarinetists point out, exist between these different styles, but they may be summarized as follows:
The German style is generally known for it's very dark timbre, fullness of tone but somewhat spread and less focused than in the French style.
The French players ar known for playing with a brighter timbre with a more pointed or focused tone and are also stereotypically known to emphasize brilliant technique or flashiness. Use of vibrato is more common.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there was an influx of European wind players to the USA, French in particular. Daniel Bonade was the most distiguished of the French clarinetists in the USA and during his tenure in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, gave birth to the American style of clarinet playing also known as the Philadelphia school of clarinet playing. Many of Bonade's students went on to occupy positions in the various major orchestras in the country. The American style is, no surprise, a hybrid of French and German concepts of clarinet sound, and attempts to combine the depth of tone of the German players with the flexibility and tonal center of the French. To some European players the American clarinet sound is lacking personality; I disagree.
As I pointed out in my first post, the issue of Leister sounding more like Muhlfeld is mainly speculation, since no one really knows what Muhlfeld sounded like; but it is an accepted fact that concepts of tone production and performance style are handed down from teacher to student from generation to generation. This is particularly true in the case of the older players since they were less influenced, during their years as young developing artists, by the blurring of nationalistic styles that is the result of having access to many recordings of foreign players and orchestras. The older players are also more likely to have more experience in orchestra environments where there was not as much of the modern day phenomenom of the endless stream of foreign guest conductors.
So in light of all this, and the simple fact that Leister is a German player who studied in Germany (his father was his first teacher) and consequently was influenced by the playing traditions handed down to his teacher by his father's German teacher etc., I don't think that it is too far of a stretch to say that Leister's style and approach to the instrument is probably closer (and I suspect a lot closer) to what Brahms heard in the playing of the great Muhlfeld, than those of Wright or Kell.
As an interesting footnote it should be noted that the quintet op.115 was written for the clarinet in A not the more common clarinet in B flat. There are two reasons for this: the clarinet is a transposing instrument so that the quintet, being in the key of B minor would result in the B flat clarinet part being in the key of C sharp minor. If the clarinet in A is used the resulting transposition puts the clarinet part in the key of D minor; a much easier key for the player to negotiate technical passages. The second reason that composers often choose the A clarinet over the B flat clarinet is that the A clarinet being a slightly larger instrument (it reaches a half tone lower than the B flat instrument) produces a deeper, darker and more opulent sound.
Happy listening and Happy Holidays.
It's amazing that this discussion still attracts attention from people after its initial posting fourteen years ago.
Last night, I printed the score and listened to all recordings I collected with score on my hand. It is still such unique piece of Brahms in his late life. Another one would be his piano intermezzo, op. 117. He described it as "the cradle song of my sorrows".
During these years, I collected additional 3 unmentioned CD recordings of this piece. They are listed below for your reference:
1. Smetana Quartet / Vladimir Riha (recorded in 1964, released by Supraphon in 2009). This performance didn't take the repeat in first movement. It is a very energetic performance. This recording creates a enclosure presentation comparable to a small recital hall.
2. Bartok Quartet / Bela Kovacs (recorded in 1976, released by Hugaroton). This performance didn't take the repeat in the first movement, either. The first violin has a very lyric and subtle singing tone. In term of recording, it is quite different from the Smetana's recording. It presents a perception from seating position in the 1st tier of a grand concert hall.
3. Alban Berg Quartet / Sabine Meyer (recording of live performance in 1998, released by EMI in 1999). This performance focused on lots of downbeat by first violin to lure your attention to the beginning of the phrase. Audience applause was retained in the recording, if that irritates you.
Happy Listening and Happy Holidays.