During the summer of 1789, Mozart, aged 33, composed his Clarinet Quintet essentially because he wanted to. There was no deadline, no commission, Le nozze di Figaro was behind him and a great success at that, and for the first time in quite a while he was financially stable. Mozart just wanted to write some music for longtime friend Anton Stadler, virtuoso of the then go-to basset clarinet – the grumpy-sounding first cousin to today’s clarinet, with its rumbling four notes below the bottom range of some of the clarinets that came after its time.

Then there was Brahms, who at age 57 felt he was done composing. Just ike Mozart he had no deadline or commission pressing him. His great instrumental works were completed. Success and a comfortable living he had finally achieved after years of hard compositional labor that had earned him the unalienable rights to a happy old age (57 of age was “old” in 1891) and the free and lively pursuit of a dolce far niente in his golden years.

But then Brahms goes to an all-Brahms concert of the sort back then when they mixed the chamber and symphonic repertoires on the same evening and he hears Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Philharmonic play two tours de force for his instrument: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Weber’s Clarinet Concerto.  Brahms decides right there and then to put retirement on hold and pen to paper and write not one but four works for his new musical idol, with whom he develops a long-distance musical friendship.

Among those works there’s the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, Opus 115, now recorded by the Alexander String Quartet with clarinetist Eli Eban on a CD that also features Mozart’s Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581 being released by Foghorn Classics.

There are times – either times of day or times in which we live – when music can provide healing, induce calm, soothe our troubled hearts, allay our fears, and for a moment dispel our cares. As I sat late one night, and let this music so exquisitely played and shared with us by five formidable artists create its magic, time stopped and all that mattered in that moment was Mozart and Brahms and the Alexander String Quartet and Eli Eban.  

Let me let the insightful liner notes by Eric Bromberger provide all the musicological background needed to accompany this music and let my message of gratitude go to Foghorn Classics, to the Alexander String Quartet, and to clarinetist Eli Eban for providing the healing and soothing and calm this listener was in need of in the midst of the turmoil of this troubled year.

Rafael de Acha