Twilight of the Romantics
* Rabl: Quartet in E-flat for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, op. 1
* Labor: Quintet in D for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano, op.
Cedille CDR 90000 088 Total Time: 60:47
Summary for the Busy Executive; Vienna sundown.
Both works were written around the turn of the last century, and both
in Vienna, at that. Walter Rabl (1873-1940) stopped composing after
the age of thirty, becoming primarily an opera conductor and a pianist.
Hard-luck Josef Labor (1842-1924), blind at an early age, couldn't really
catch a career break, although he enjoyed the esteem of the highest
musical circles in Vienna. Alma Schindler -- as she was before she
married Mahler -- studied with him, and Paul Wittgenstein commissioned
Both of these works are at least very good, although it wouldn't surprise
you to learn that they might have been composed a generation previously.
Rabl's quartet, indeed, won a prize by unanimous vote of a panel that
included Brahms. It's extremely well-made. One notes especially its
structural clarity. You need a great deal of talent to mimic Brahms or
Schumann -- the quartet comes closer to Schumann than to Brahms -- even
badly. It's a comfortable piece, just the sort of thing amateur chamber
players look out for. Unfortunately, the example of Brahms and to some
extent the Schumann piano quintet overshadow the work. Brahms, after
all, had written his great clarinet works in the same decade as Rabl,
and you immediately mark the difference. The Brahms carries, for lack
of a better word, heft. It soars above the comfortable, although it has
its comfortable moments. The Rabl has almost everything going for it
-- craft, tuneful charm, poetry -- but not the extra bit of inspiration
-- the music that gobsmacks a listener -- which would lift the score to
the highest rank.
Far more fascinating and more than charming, the Labor tries more
and digs deeper. The older man is also the more progressive composer.
There's a little bit of Brahms, particularly at the architectural level,
but there's also quite a bit of Liszt and Wagner, without totally
succumbing to their ultra-chromatic idiom. In fact, in the sense of
uniting chromaticism and classical procedures, Labor reminded me most
of Bruckner, a supposition confirmed when I read in the liner notes that
Labor studied with Sechter, Bruckner's teacher. To me, Labor succeeds
far better than Bruckner in melding classical structural principles with
19th-century chromaticism, although his tone is a far cry from Bruckner's
religious yearning, and, in this score at least, he's not scaling
The work -- officially in four movements, functionally in three --
begins with a sonata allegro, full of complex thematic relationships,
but without thorns. Labor sounds as if he's "just singing." The second
movement, an allegretto, blurs the line in an intriguing way between
variation and fantasia on a single idea. Vaughan Williams does the
same thing on a larger scale in his 5 Variants on Dives and Lazarus.
The third movement, titled "Fantasia," really functions as a prelude to
the finale, a more formal variation set. Throughout the quintet, Labor
weaves thematic relationships among movements. For example, the final
notes of the violin in the "Fantasia" are the first theme of the entire
work. It flits by, almost beyond the listener's sonar, but if caught,
it prepares you for a wonderful surprise in the finale.
The Orion Ensemble gets these pieces. It understands the High
Romanticism of both works, as well as the considerable intellect that
went into their creation. Furthermore, they don't subject either score
to a "one-size-fits-all" routine. They take into account the character
of both works. Accordingly, the Rabl sounds bright and cheery, the Labor
mellow and autumnal. For sheer pleasure, this disc is hard to beat.
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