Brahms: Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (for clarinet & string quartet)
Dohnanyi: Sextet for clarinet/piano/french horn & string trio
CENTAUR Records #2745       67 minutes

With the surfeit of Brahms recordings the last two years---just check some of the back issues---I can hardly believe that Centaur has come up with such an incredible reading from an unknown source.

The Hollywood Quartet was one of America's best ensembles, widely recorded and with a broad repertory that put other groups to shame. They were of that "no nonsense" generation where the excesses of romanticism were shorn for a much more direct, "composer first" attitude; yet, like most American quartets, they played with a fervent spirit and collegial, highly emotional tenor that as often as not breathed new life into a stale and staid European performance tradition.

The New Hollywood Quartet, formed with studio and other musicians in the Hollywood area, play a lot like their namesake. I was quite startled to hear their unanimity of ensemble and supercharged, amazingly coherent viewpoint. Gary Gray, Professor at UCLA and widely heard west coast performer, sounds to me about as close to Reginald Kell (another iconoclast) as I have ever heard. Tempos are lingering, autumnal "Brahmsitis" here...and it all works.  Something this bunch is doing....and I am almost at a loss to tell you exactly what it is....gets right to the heart of this music.

I can't tell say that this will outrank the favorites, for there are too many, Kell included. But it goes right to the top of the list with all the others, and even if this is your only recording, you do well.

The Dohnanyi is a Brahmsian, yet not Brahmsian piece that inspires raves every time people hear it.

It is a wonder that it is not programmed more often. Maybe it's the odd scoring for piano, string trio, clarinet and horn.  At over 30 minutes, it is a substantial, very effective piece of chamber music.

The clarity of the writing is remarkable and the the addition of the piano to this mixed instrumentation gives the form an almost quasi-symphonic weight. Any recording of it is welcome and we are fortunate to have had some very good ones. David Mulbury liked a Bridge release with players from the American Symphony (May/June 2005 issue), while Elaine Fine could hardly contain herself when speaking of the Spectrum Concerts release, on Naxos, coupled with the same composer's "Serenade" (Sept./Oct 2003 issue).  I think I can confidently add this present issue, full and sensous, with more superb playing.

The sound here is a bit of a puzzler. It has smaller scope than I'm used to, with the instruments more concentrated into one physical sound space, and it was recorded at a fairly low sound level. But despite the constrictions, it is rich and warm, with a dark color that I find most attractive.

Centaur has certainly suprised me with this one, and I hope these forces will continue their fine work in future releases.