On hearing Richard Mühlfeld play, Brahms wrote to his friend Clara Schumann: ‘nobody can blow the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mülfeld’. Indeed, the sounds Mühlfeld produced so captivated the composer that he reconsidered his plan to retire and instead went on to write four more chamber works, each celebrating the clarinet.
This quintet is commonly performed as a companion piece to Mozart’s work for the same instrumentation, with which it bears much in common. Talented performers were the inspiration behind both works, yet in both the clarinet is largely integrated within the strings rather than treated as a soloist.
The thematic material introduced in the work’s opening bars frames Brahms’ four-movement quintet. As the baton passes from one instrument to another, the composer subtly examines the effect of the various tone colours on his musical material. The stark simplicity of the second movement soon gives way to more technical writing, while the third movement offers a brief respite from the more melancholy atmosphere that pervades the remainder of the work. The final movement is a theme and five variations, with the momentum building with each reiteration before the relaxing into a nostalgic coda.