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Review: Clarinet is star of chamber music program

Some orchestral musicians are so skilled and influential that their names go into the history books.

In the late 18th century, clarinetist Anton Stadler so impressed Mozart with his playing that the composer created a series of masterpieces for him. A century later, clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld had the same effect on Brahms, who came out of retirement to write another series of masterpieces.

It’s too early to tell whether clarinetist Franklin Cohen will have a history-worthy effect, but he certainly was impressive in a program for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon. A capacity audience gathered in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum to hear Cohen and a skilled team of colleagues expound their art.

A highlight of the afternoon was one of the most prominent works that arose from the Stadler-Mozart encounter, the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (any number higher than 500 in the Köchel catalog is a certified masterpiece). Joining Cohen were violinists Gary Levinson and Lydia Umlauf, violist Richard Young, and cellist Bion Tsang.

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet has its lighter moments and plenty of lyric beauty, but it seems to me that its dominant mood is a kind of sadness, produced in no small part by the sound of the clarinet — an effect often described as “autumnal.”

Cohen gave an impressively eloquent performance, as did the rest of his musical team. Among the string players, one special moment was a lovely episode in the final movement played by Young on the viola (he alternated violin and viola during the afternoon).

The afternoon’s music began with something new to me: a selection of pieces for the unusual combination of clarinet, viola and piano by Max Bruch. Joining Cohen and Young was pianist Jihye Chang. This was a pleasant surprise.

There was something kind of autumnal about these pieces as well, with plenty of lyric beauty and some interesting combinations of instruments. Especially appealing was a musical conversation between the viola and the clarinet in the third piece.

Not as immediately appealing, though it had its moments, was the third work on the program: Hindemith’s Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano.

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