Quasi Morendo (CD Review)

Music of Brahms, Sciarrino, and Pesson. Reto Bieri, clarinet; Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen, violin; Minna Pensola, violin; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello). ECM New Series 2557 481 8082.

By Karl W. Nehring

I was going to open this review by saying something along the lines of, "people who are fans of Brahms probably are averse to auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to them." Upon a bit of further reflection, though, I realized that I myself am a fan of Brahms but in fact do indeed enjoy auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to me. That being said, though, I must confess that when I saw that ECM had sandwiched my beloved Brahms Clarinet Quintet between two slices of music by composers that were new and strange to me, I was a bit apprehensive. Still, I persisted.

Upon first hearing the first few measures of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino's Let Me Die Before I Wake (the liner notes state that the title is taken from a book by Derek Humphry, an American advocate of euthanasia), the opening piece on this CD, I must confess that my apprehension level increased significantly. The sounds were ghostly – strange and otherworldly. I am quite familiar with the sound of a clarinet, as I used to play the clarinet and have enjoyed the sound of the clarinet on many, many recordings. But I had never heard one sound like this before.  It reminded me of Tuvan throat singing, with two notes – a high and a low – being played simultaneously by clarinetist Reto Bieri, who explain in the line notes that "with special grips, even with slight changes in the approach to the sound, it is possible to create particular multiphonics, through breathing and blowing (a big difference!) I can influence these sounds in the finest degree. How to explain this physically is really a mystery to me. And I am very happy that most of it is a mystery to me. That's the way it has to be, it's mysterious music and has to be mysterious." After my initial shock, I played the piece a few more times and began to appreciate its haunting and fascinating sounds, finding myself in awe at the ability of both composer Sciarrino and performer Bieri to create and navigate such a strange but wonderful musical landscape. This is music from the bardo.

Reto Bieri
Moving from the mysterious to the familiar, the next piece on this release is the Brahms Quintet in b minor, op. 115, which I would assume is music with which many who read this blog are familiar.  I myself have owned several recordings, back in the day on LP and now on CD. A quick check of my collection revealed the Shifrin/Chamber Music Northwest recording on Delos neatly filed where it belongs in a classical rack, but I failed to find the Stoltzman/Tokyo String Quartet version on RCA that is apparently piled in a box where is awaits refilling one of these days when I assemble the new CD rack that I bought months ago so I could accommodate my ever-growing collection. The Brahms is a piece near and dear to my heart and it is given a fine performance by Bieri and Meta4. Having demonstrated his amazing ability to create strange tones from his instrument in the Sciarrino, Bieri then demonstrates his ability to produce an amazingly pure-toned and virtuosic performance of the Brahms, matched in kind by the clean, precise, and well-balanced support of the string quartet. Indeed, my one very slight reservation about their version is that at times it seemed almost too pure, too clean – just a touch more warmth would have been welcome at times. Still, this is a breathtaking performance, well captured by the engineers, and it is a version to which I will often return in the future when I want to enter the autumnal world of the Brahms Quintet.

The final piece on the program is Nebenstück for clarinet and string quartet by French composer Gérard Pesson. The title roughly translates as "next-to piece," and has been referred to as a "filtering of Brahms." The liner notes describe the piece as "an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet, of the Ballade for Piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854."  To my ears, the music unfolds as a kind of dialogue between the clarinet and the strings, with the clarinet having a smooth, calming effect, while the strings sound more nervous and edgy, often being plucked. The overall result is a very affecting musical experience, haunting in the positive sense of the word. The piece ends in a kind of fading sigh, a dying breath, or perhaps just a memory of some mostly forgotten dream.

Overall, then, Quasi Morendo ("Almost Dying") is an artistic reflection on death, life, and states that lie between. The liner notes are helpfully informative, with an especially interesting essay on the Brahms. I can recommend this release highly to music lovers – especially Brahms fans – whether they be familiar or not with his Clarinet Quintet. There is much to enjoy and much to contemplate here, both in the music and in the notes. A splendid CD!


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa