Israeli clarinetist joins the Jerusalem Quartet
Few command Brahms's string quartet the way the Jerusalem do here in Op.51 No.2. Even the most reputable players can't always make the close-knit harmonies sound out, leaving the thematic transformations to peek out from behind layers of texture, resulting in music that seems remote. Immediacy certainly isn't lacking here, partly because the quartet's tight blend never allows the sound to become unwieldy but achieves a specificity allowing a greater degree of contour, not to mention more shades of muted mystery.
With every phrase and movement having distinctly different things to say, the piece takes on as much narrative thrust as any of Brahms's symphonies, even when sometimes-skipped repeats are observed (the first movement's, for example). Also, the groups ability to play softly yet maintain ensemble stability and strength of timbre contribues greatly to the performance's sense of light and shade. Much of the recording's success has to do with the engineering, which effectively takes you inside the Jerusalem's sonority yet maintains an overall acoustical aura that also delivers Brahmsian lushness.
Joined by Sharon Kam in the Clarinet Quintet, the Jerusalem exude an even greater sense of freedom with much more give and take within any given tempo. Kam has lovely, warm tone and seamless legato, but what sets her apart from her contemporaries is her chemistry with the quartet. Everyone seems to draw ideas and energy from the others in a performance that has great flights of passion, without imposing an anachronistic Romanticism on the music. Even in the rhapsodic solos, Kam maintains a pose and restraint. The terse, mysterious ending that often feels strangely abrupt sneaks up from behind - quite nicely.
David Patrick Strearns
String Quartet No.2, Op.51 No.2
Clarinet Quintet, Op.115a
Sharon Kam / Jerusalem Quartet
Harmonia Mundi HMC90 2152 (71' DDD)
GRAMOPHONE June 2013