This album explores Brahms’s lifelong fascination with Hungarian idioms. The programme, following the Quintet, comprises a series of arrangements by the group’s cellist Stephan Koncz, which gradually loosen the strict discipline of a classical chamber group, moving towards the freely expressive style of a Hungarian restaurant band. The arrangements are marvellously well done, and the sequence ranges from the comfortable warmth of Brahms waltzes to the distinctly exotic sound of the Transylvanian medley. (Listeners will find some of these melodies familiar; they appear in Bartók’s Romanian Dances.) The Leó Weiner pieces, originally for clarinet and piano, transmit an atmosphere of peasant music, while the Hungarian Dances are arranged to give the impression of a gypsy band, with spectacular solo contributions from clarinet, violin and cimbalom.
The performance of the Quintet is a fine one, with lovely clarinet tone, excellent overall sound and a deep understanding of the work’s varied character. Andreas Ottensamer appreciates the need for some rhythmic freedom, not least in the elaborate Hungarian music in the Adagio, but I don’t find his rubato as convincing as Reginald Kell’s in his wonderful 1937 recording with the Busch Quartet – Kell is better at keeping the listener aware of the underlying rhythmic framework. And in the finale, I feel there’s a miscalculation in slowing up for the third and fourth variations; this takes away from the tragic effect of the poco meno mosso marked when the first movement’s theme is recalled. But it’s a fascinating issue, with playing of mastery and versatility. (Gramophone)