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Twilight of the Romantics
Chamber Music by Walter Rabl and Josef Labor

Orion Ensemble Diana Schmück, Piano Kathryne Pirtle, Clarinet
Florentina Ramniceanu, Violin Jennifer Marlas, Viola Judy Stone, Cello


Walter Rabl (1873-1940) Quartet in E-flat major for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano, Op. 1 (1896)
Josef Labor (1842-1924) Quintet in D major for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 11 (1900)

Çedille CDR 90000 088

A recommendable CD which also provides a lesson in how to make a mark in the music business.

The Orion Ensemble, five accomplished young professional musicians with flourishing independent careers in Chicago, brings a fresh approach to programming, abetted by a silent sixth honorary member, violist Sally Didrickson, who researches and edits obscure chamber music for them. One of Sally’s "finds" was Labor's Quintet, scored for the core Orion Ensemble, clarinet and piano quartet, a rare combination.

Walter Rabl was admired by Brahms, and his clarinet quartet won (anonymously) a competition for which the great composer headed the adjudicators and had donated prize money. He turned to opera conducting in the early 20 C and his own music is virtually unknown. The Clarinet Quartet is the ony 19 C work for that rewarding combination and Rabl manipulates the sonorities in an atractively varied manner. Played with conviction of its worth, as here, it would find a welcome in any chamber concert for an ad hoc group of friends, say in Sunday Morning concerts in London's Wigmore and Blackheath Halls.

Josef Labor, another Brahms disciple, had a distinguished roster of pupils including Alma Schindler (later Alma Mahler) pianist Paul Wittgenstein (who commisioned left-handed piano music after losing his right arm) and Arnold Schönberg. As a member of the Wittgenstein circle he interacted also with Brahms, Clara Schumann, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein played Brahms clarinet sonatas with Labor, counting him amongst the top greats amongst composers.

Both these works, which eschew progressive trends at the time of the dawn of musical modernism, prove viable well beyond their historical interest. The quintet is a major structure which develops its key sequences with 'slippery chromatic relationships' and the quintets of Franz Schmidt came to mind whilst listening.

This CD is (one) good exemplar for how younger musicians in college and afterwards may achieve a significant presence on the musical firmanent, instead of trying to win attention with the nth recording of canonic master works.

Orion Ensemble is soundly backed administratively and this Cedille debut is recorded and produced with every care. Bonnie Campbell's notes tell all you could want to know about these obscure composers, and a visit to Orion Ensemble's website is recommended to put this CD into context.

Now pianist Diana Schmück must take the opportunity to persuade her colleagues to follow up the Wittgenstein connection by venturing the first recording of Franz Schmidt's delectable clarinet quintet in its original left-hand piano form.

A Celebration of American Chamber Music
Works by Peter Schickele, Augusta Read Thomas, Jackson Berkey and Robert Kritz
Orion Ensemble

Orion's debut CD (unnumbered and undated, but apparently c.2003) boasts a risky and grandiose title which fails to vindicate itself. The group had built up a local reputation around Chicago over ten years before making it, and they persuaded friends to write for their uncommon line up.

Schickele's joyously energetic Serenade for Three (1973) gives it an arresting send off and that piece should be assured of a welcome whenever a clarinettist, violinist and pianist get together to play Bartok or Stravinsky. Augusta Read Thomas's evocative commission for Orion, "Angel Musings" (1998) is the most substantial piece, worth hearing twice.

But Jackson Berkey's undated and facile rescoring for the group of an earlier song cycle (words not supplied) is not of substance or quality to cross the ocean to Europe. Robert Kritz's 21 minutes commission is a thoughtful, questioning piece of changing moods by a composer, now 80, who resumed after several decades compositional silence.

No reservations about the group's collective virtuosity and sensitive ensemble, nor about the excellent recorded sound. With the inevitably restricted repertoire for clarinet and piano quartet, I hope the Orions will be minded to take up my suggestion above to create a needed premiere recording of a masterpiece in an even rarer genre, the one-handed pianist making Schmidt's quintet a true conversation between equal voices.


© Peter Grahame Woolf