"Twilight of the Romantics" is the title of the disc, and both of the works featured here certainly have an autumnal feel to them; stylistically both works were composed in the shadow of Brahms, and there are influences of Schumann and other romantic composers here, but the language of both works nevertheless belongs, as the title suggests, to the twilight of romanticism. Both works are also pleasantly melodic and well written, though it is in the end hard to make very great claims for them; fans of late romantic chamber music in the manner of Brahms would want to give them a try, however, and at least the Orion Ensemble provides more than adequate advocacy.
Walter Rabl (1873-1940) is better known as a conductor and pianist - indeed, he stopped composing at the age of 30. His quartet in E flat major for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano is nevertheless a relatively early work, from 1896, and given the opus number of "1". It is a structurally well-made work, innocently tuneful and pleasantly comfortable, and essentially light in character. The example of Brahms looms large, and unfortunately Rabl's work, despite its qualities, sounds rather thin and shallow when that comparison is on the table (as it will inevitably be). At the risk of sounding more demeaning than intended (it is, indeed, a pleasant work) the quartet sounds to me like a good example of what solid craftsmanship can do in the absence of genuine inspiration.
The quintet in D major for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano by Josef Labor (1842-1924) is the superior work here. Labor is best known for his organ music, but on the evidence of this work it may be worth exploring his other output. That said, his quintet from 1900 is hardly a masterpiece, though at least it offers something more substantial than Rabl. Stylistically the work is indebted, once again, to Brahms, but there are also modest touches of Liszt and perhaps even Wagner here, all incorporated in a moderated language that displays deep commitment to classical forms and modes of expression. The opening movement is singing and relatively free of concern, and the absence of any kind of challenge threatens to make it outstay its welcome a little. The central movements are mostly charming but with more than a streak of solemnity. The finale, a set of variations, is more substantial, and despite the variations format Labor manages to create some surprisingly impressive passages, especially those that inventively employs thematic material from the previous movements.
The Orion Ensemble plays both works very well - indeed, it is hard to imagine much more compelling advocacy for these works (though they are perhaps a little laidback in their approach), and the Cedille sound is warm and natural. In the end, however, I am hard pressed to give an unequivocal recommendation for this disc - the music is indeed pleasant and charming enough, but there is little here (the finale of the Labor apart) that lingers in the memory. Nonetheless, if you have a particular interest in late romantic chamber music this disc is surely worth investigating.