The Endymion : the first Coffee Concert 2012 – 2013, a review

Endymion Ensemble at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday, 28th October 2012  

Review by Richard Amey

There is a fascinating notion thrown up by the root source of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet that appears to fly in the face of rivalry and prejudice in musical criticism and heroic allegiance in late 1800s Vienna.

This memorable piece was performed by one of our long-standing top clarinettists Anthony Pay as he guested for the first time with the Endymion Ensemble, at the Strings Attached Coffee Concert on 28th October. Their job was to present the mellow fruitfulness of Brahms’ inspiration in the autumn of his life, derived from Richard Műhlfeld, who was probably the outstanding clarinettist of his time, and whose exceptional skill and taste re-lit the faded flame of Brahms’ desire to compose.

It’s easy to read into this great chamber music elegies for all the friends the lonely Brahms had survived as he looked back over his life and forward to mortality. He will have ruminated on a career of European fame while being held up by Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick as the pillar of conservatism in a war of words against the oncoming romantics Liszt and Wagner whose own vociferous supporters counter-attacked.

Some of the most sensuous, evocative and pictorial recent music for the clarinet had been written by Wagner.   And for more than a decade following Wagner’s death, who should be the principal clarinettist conveying his music in the festival opera orchestra at famous Bayreuth, but Műhlfeld?  Wagner was undoubtedly Műhlfeld’s own inspiration. Now, here was Brahms, himself a highly sensual composer within his stricter formal straitjacket, resuscitating on that (to some) controversial oxygen. Hanslick’s thoughts on this ironical ‘treachery’ are unrecorded, even had he realised the link.

On Sunday, the clocks having gone back an hour, a typically reverential, languid opening movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet would complement perfectly some extra time in bed. But the Endymions adopted a quicker tempo and the agitations and unsettlings often smoothed over by slower, oily interpretations were now alive and insistent in our ears. Golden, lying dead leaves were now brown, windblown and disturbed.

The second movement hinted at passions and regrets, of which Brahms had a several, and so continued a stimulating and revelatory reading of this music, and an absorbing and masterly demonstration of its rewardingly unique range of expression.

Already, the morning had begun with this work’s chief predecessor and model of more than 100 years before, similarly a late-in-life work, the Clarinet Quintet of Mozart.

Here the Endymion had something special on offer from their 23-year-old artistic director Philip Venables: a short, custom-composed reflection on the Mozart serving in performance as a prelude to it. Entitled ‘K’ (a nod to the Mozart cataloguer, Köchel), the strings emerge from silence into a series of sustained textures, finally hinting at the first theme of the Quintet, to be joined unobtrusively only then by the clarinet.

Wolfgang Amadeus then pops his head around the door and the Quintet proper is up and away.  Such warmth, originality, such freshness and roundedness of utterance, such clarity of content and logic in form came to us with vigour and appropriate grace under the hands of violinists Jackie Shave and Clara Bliss, violist Asdis Valdimarsdottir and cellist Adrian Bradbury, with the sumptuous depth and range of Pay’s basset clarinet sound the cream on the Viennese whirl.

He played a light-coloured boxwood instrument from the 1850s, modified in the 1960s, bought from the late Alan Hacker. For the Brahms – Pay, sporting a beard and head of hair almost as full as the composer himself – then played the Brahms on a 1908 Buffet clarinet.

The Endymions, performing in the round, were surrounded rightly by a substantial audience. And this programme, the world’s two masterworks in this instrumental combination in one sitting, was a treat on paper – and a sheer joy and stimulation in the flesh.

Richard Amey

Next Coffee Concert:  Piano Trio on Sunday, November 18 (11am): Rachmaninov Trio Elegaique No 1 in G minor Opus posthumous); Mendelssohn Piano Trio No 2 in C minor Opus 66; Dvorak Piano Trio No 3 in F minor.