The clarinet quintets by Mozart and Brahms make the perfect concert pairing. Both were late works inspired by friendships with great musicians – Anton Stadler in Mozart’s case, and Richard Mühlfeld, who tempted Brahms out of self-imposed retirement. Both quintets employ muted strings in their slow movements and both close with a theme and variations finale. You can hear them coupled together plenty of times in concert but what made this Wigmore Hall recital extra special were the period instruments on which they were played by Lorenzo Coppola and a string quartet led by Isabelle Faust.

Lorenzo Coppola © Stefano Buonamici
Lorenzo Coppola
© Stefano Buonamici

Mozart’s Adagio for two clarinets and three basset horns gave a taster for the A major quintet. Its sombre Masonic resonance was maintained in Coppola’s arrangement for the ensemble, before the Italian clarinettist gave welcome introductions to his two instruments for the evening. For Mozart, we had the unusual sighting of a basset clarinet, a copy by Agnès Guéroult of the instrument Stadler had commissioned to provide an extension of four semitones at the bottom of the clarinet’s usual lowest note.

With its bulbous end, Coppola dubs the instrument a clarinet d’amour and demonstrated its wide range and the potential for comic interplay, heard in the finale where the liquorice chalumeau bass register kept leaping mid-phrase to soubrette soprano, like the duet for Osmin and Blonde in Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Buttery and soft-edged, the instrument beguiled the ear, the Larghetto’s theme whispered like a cooling zephyr on a hot summer night. The performance itself was on the hurried side of brisk, not without grace in the first movement, Coppola contributing to a lively minuet and bucolic second trio section (the clarinet sits out the first trio). His ornamentation of repeats was tasteful. Coppola’s string partners were lean and clean, though Faust’s tone veered towards glassy.  

The string players offered two movements from Haydn’s String Quartet in C major, Op.54 no. 2 as a teaser before the Brahms, Faust inviting us to listen for the connection which was most noticeable in the slow movement of the quintet where the clarinet intrudes with Hungarian gypsy-style riffs, which Coppola imbued with an improvisatory air.

His instrument here was just as fascinating as in the Mozart. Coppola plays a copy of a Carl Baermann/ Georg Ottensteiner clarinet as used by Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra where Brahms fell in love with his sound, leading him to compose the quintet, the clarinet trio and the two sonatas which are the crowning glory of the instrument’s repertoire. Mühlfeld's instrument was made of boxwood which, for the 1860s, was already a bit of a throwback at a time when grenadilla and ebony were becoming the material of choice for clarinet production, offering greater power. The colours in the instrument’s palette were remarkable, ranging from a crimson blush through russet and tawny to plump purplish chalumeau notes oozing from the bell. Feathery descending demisemiquavers in the Presto non assai section of the third movement demonstrated the instrument’s delicacy. I thought I’d died and gone to period clarinet heaven.

Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is often associated with an autumnal mood, a warm bath of nostalgia. Not so here, where the players injected energy and ardour into an often passionate account. Faust, employing more vibrato here, led with plenty of aggression, while Yoshiko Morita’s muted viola tone in the Adagio soothed. With rubato freely employed, there was a rhapsodic feel to the finale until the wistful remembrance of the quintet’s opening phrase – this time in B minor – suddenly plunged us into a melancholic close, all the more devastating because what had preceded it had been so upbeat.