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Richmond Concert Society, Brahms and Schubert, 28 September 2010

October 3, 2010

Richmond Concert Society , Emma Johnson and Friends, Brahms and Schubert, 28 September 2010

On Tuesday 28 September 2010 at All Hallows Church, Twickenham, Emma Johnson and Friends performed a programme of music by Brahms and Schubert. There were two works in the programme: Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 and Schubert’s Octet in F, D 803.  Emma Johnson’s Friends were the Con Tempo String Quartet from Romania with whom she played the Brahms, then for the Schubert Octet the ensemble was joined by Robin O’Neill, bassoon, Richard Watkins, French Horn and Chris West, double-bass. This was the first concert of the Richmond Concert Society 2010/11 season. The first half of the concert was devoted to the Brahms and the second to the Schubert. 

Brahms wrote his clarinet quintet late in life.  It was intended to showcase the talents of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld who played in the Court Orchestra of the Duke of Meningen.  Rather unusually for a distinguished instrumentalist Mühlfeld  became famous for playing an instrument which was not his first : Mühlfeld joined the Meningen orchestra as a violinist and only later taught himself the clarinet.  Brahms referred to Mühlfeld as “the greatest master of his instrument” and did indeed write a masterpiece for him with the Op.115 Clarinet Quintet.  Brahms always had a special affinity with wind instruments, particularly the horn, and the Clarinet Quintet is a superb example of idiomatic woodwind writing.  In the middle of the slow movement (the second movement) Brahms writes for the clarinet  influenced by a style usually referred to as Hungarian Gypsy music; this style of clarinet playing is still found today in Balkan countries and in Greece and probably has its origins in the music of Byzantium.  This style of music rarely finds its way into Western European music.

When Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet was first performed in England it was unjustly attacked by George Bernard Shaw, but, like many works by Brahms it has gradually established itself as a masterpiece despite early criticism.  At a late stage in his career Brahms shows himself a master of the profound techniques that gave us, for example, the four great symphonies. I was struck by how similar in many respects to the symphonies  this quintet is.  There is the seamless blending of themes into an organic whole, the ability to introduce sudden rhythmic contrasts and then integrate the resulting ideas into the overall scheme, and above all, the form is worked out with a powerful musical logic.  The first movement is particularly good example of Brahms’ ability to write a distinctive sonata form movement on a model worked out most fully in the symphonies.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a typical Brahms sonata form which could be found used across different genres.  The Clarinet Quintet has throughout that elegiac feeling that seems to be Brahms’ natural element.  The performance was lively, well-balanced and sensitive throughout and gave the impression that the players were used to playing together.  Emma Johnson gave a particularly polished performance as the solo clarinettist.

The second half of the programme was devoted to one of Schubert’s most ambitious works, the Octet.  Schubert wrote this long work in 1823 when he was 27.  As Emma Johnson explained in her spoken introduction, Schubert already knew when he wrote the Octet that he had only a few more years to live.  Given this it is extraordinary that the work exudes so much humour and vitality.  The Octet was commissioned by a clarinettist, in this case Count Ferdinand von Troyer, who was Chief Steward to Archduke Rudolph ( a patron of Beethoven).  But the work is by no means just a vehicle for the clarinet, though that instrument does have its moments, especially the beautiful melody at the beginning of the slow movement. 

Schubert’s Octet was first performed in 1824 and then remained unknown until the 1860s, when Schubert’s music was once more becoming known and championed by admirers such as Brahms and Eduard Hanslick.  The six-movement Octet is one of Schubert’s longest works and is symphonic in scope: it is as long as almost any nineteenth-century symphony.  Reluctant as I am to criticise Schubert, I have always thought that six movements is one movement too many.  Even movements 1, 2 and 6 would make a very substantial work.  A close examination of the Octet reveals that it has  some interesting features.  The slow movement has a very original approach to the sonata form development section: Schubert moves this section to further forward in the movement than is normal. The passage where we would expect the development section to be is reduced to a simple melodic line.

For the performers the Octet presents quite a difficult challenge.  The ensemble does not seem to be a naturally self-balancing one so considerable skill in ensemble playing is needed.  Emma Johnson and Friends performed the Octet with exemplary skill, insight and panache and, as with the Brahms, they sounded as if they had been playing together for a long time.

St Hallows, a venue that must hold over 800 people, was packed for the occasion.  I’m not surprised as Richmond Concert Society offers ten concerts of this quality for just the £35.00 membership fee.  The series continues with a recital on 19 October by the distinguised pianist Paul Lewis.

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