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Review: Brahms' Heart and Soul - CD review

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

New Zealand String Quartet and James Campbell (clarinet)

Brahms: String Quartet No 3 in B flat, Op 67 and Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op 115

Naxos CD Recording. Recorded at St Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto; 14-16 July 2015 

Paul E. Robinson     /    Musical Toronto

For many Canadian music-lovers, clarinettist James Campbell will be the main attraction on this new Naxos CD. Born in Leduc, Alberta, Campbell won the CBC Talent Competition at the age of 22. During the 1970s through the 1990s, he was a ubiquitous figure in Toronto concert circles, appearing with the chamber ensemble Camerata and in frequent solo appearances with our leading orchestras. In 1999, Campbell left Toronto to take up a prestigious teaching position at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music (Bloomington, Indiana), and since 1985, when he took over leadership of the Festival of the Sound (Parry Sound, ON) from founder Anton Kuerti, he has maintained a Canadian presence, at least in the summer months.

Campbell has had a long association with the New Zealand String Quartet (NZSQ), which he has often invited to appear at the Festival of the Sound. The NZSQ will be in residence at the festival again this summer, appearing in no fewer than nine events, including (July 26) a concert featuring the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, the same work Campbell and the NZSQ recorded together (Toronto, 2015) for this new recording.

Sixty-five when this recording was made, Campbell retains the same beauty of sound and chamber music sensitivity that have always made him a special artist. In the members of the NZSQ, he has collaborators of similar distinction. This is a magnificent performance of one of Brahms’ late masterpieces, in which the clarinet is perfectly balanced in an equal partnership with the strings, which is as it should be. I give full credit to the players for this achievement. Kudos also to producers Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver.

The second movement of the Clarinet Quintet is really the heart and soul of the piece, not only in terms of the range of expression, but also with respect to Brahms’ use of the clarinet. Having discovered the possibilities of the clarinet late in life, here he explores the instrument’s technical potential and its ability to provide different tone colours throughout its range. It is altogether typical of Brahms that the technical challenges contained in this music are never opportunities for “showing off,” and Campbell’s long experience with the work allows him to be expansive in his phrasing without personalising the music inordinately.

The New Zealand String Quartet, which is celebrating its 30th-anniversary this year, remains an ensemble of the first rank. The NZSQ has made numerous recordings for Naxos — including all the Mendelssohn and Bartok quartets — and they are working their way through all the quartets and quintets of Brahms.

Brahms String Quartet Op. 67 is an extraordinary piece and the NZSQ gives it as fine a performance as I have ever heard. The third movement, which begins with a passage featuring the viola without mute while the other three instruments are muted, is particularly attractive. Violist Gillian Ansell plays her solo with gorgeous tone and the most delicious phrasing. She is equally impressive in the first variation in the last movement. Brahms ends the last movement of Op. 67 with a recollection of the opening material from the first movement, a device he was also to use in the last movement of the Clarinet Quintet — clearly, a unifying device in both cases but also profoundly satisfying on an emotional level.

In 2016, NZSQ had a change in personnel, with violinist Monique Lapins replacing second violinist Douglas Beilman, who was retiring after 21 years.

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