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Never have I felt less like writing a review than after this superlative concert, exquisitely played by the visiting American String Quartet and University of North Carolina School of the Arts artist faculty clarinetist, Oskar Espina Ruiz. As the adage goes,”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (Martin Mull?); you had to be there to appreciate it.
Both works on the program, the Johannes Brahms’ Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet, Op. 115 and Franz Schubert’s Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden," were dedicated to the memory of William Watson’s recently deceased mother. Watson and his wife, Judy, are arts patrons who have contributed greatly to UNCSA, and in whose honor the gem of a recital hall on the UNCSA campus is named.
Brahms had pretty much decided to retire from composition in 1890 when he heard the clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld, for whom he wrote a spurt of compositions: a clarinet trio, this quintet and two sonatas. The quintet is of a bittersweet mood, alternating between major and minor modes, using the melancholic lower registers of the clarinet to great effect. The four movements follow the form Brahms had used in his larger works, including his symphonies, starting with a sonata form first movement, a dramatic muted slow movement in which the clarinet plays the role of interlocutor rather than collaborator in a number of quasi-cadenzas, an intermezzo (instead of the classical scherzo) and a theme and variations returning to the opening notes of the first movement at the end to close the loop and bring the work to a satisfying conclusion.
I cannot begin to describe the perfection of the string playing, the precision and blend of tone colors, the smoothness of vibrato – it as though the four were one, and the clarinet, with its straight tone, a welcome guest. Perhaps the most moving passages were some of the softest, like the pianissimo that precedes the development section in the first movement.
Mr. Espina Ruiz is a phenomenal clarinetist – a subtle and discreet virtuoso whose dynamic control matched that of the string quartet. This reviewer is partial to allowing the clarinet to play with vibrato in certain expressive moments – Espina Ruiz prefers the more common straight tone.
The only other work on the program was Franz Schubert’s monumental "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. From the opening quasi-unison statement of the first theme, it was clear that the players of the American String Quartet were intimately familiar with this work, the 14th (of 15) of Schubert’s quartets, written two years before his death at age 31. There was a subtlety of nuance and a flexibility of tempo which only comes with years of experience. I was particularly taken with the second movement whose theme Schubert had previously used in a lied and which bears the title “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” (Death and the Maiden), and its uncanny resemblance to the second movement (Allegretto) of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The final movement, a tarantella in all but name, brought this perfect performance to a smashing close. The audience responded with a burst of intensity, though short-lived. One would have wished for twice the crowd, four times the ovation!