Swiss composer Xavier Lefèvre, who primarily worked in Paris, was a clarinetist and a legendary teacher of the instrument who published a Méthode for the instrument in 1802 that is critical to its history. Lefèvre was a prolific composer and, perhaps not surprisingly, the bulk of his work primarily features his own instrument, much as his contemporary Fernando Sor's worklist is dominated by music for the guitar. This Tudor disc, featuring outstanding Swiss clarinetist Eduard Brunner supported by an all-star cast of chamber musicians including violinist Ana Chumachenco and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang, performs the first four of Lefèvre's six surviving quartets for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. Although a dissertation on this set appeared as long ago as 1974, this is apparently the first time these works have been recorded.
Just where Lefèvre got his model for such an interesting combination is a matter of some debate; the two clarinet quartets commonly accredited to Mozart are posthumous arrangements of other works, cobbled together by publisher Johann André in 1799; there was also a tradition of performing Mozart's Oboe Quartet with a clarinet in place of the oboe. The two Paris prints of the Lefèvre quartets are undated, but probably appeared between 1800 and 1810; during that time both Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Lefèvre's own student Bernhard Henrik Crusell published works for this combination, so perhaps Lefèvre was simply modeling from his contemporaries or, in fact, influenced them; it is hard to know. Lefèvre's first two clarinet quartets are strictly within a late classical idiom close to Mozart, though without his melting sensuousness; they are bright, casual, and straightforward. Quartet III in C major definitely stands out through its higher level of vigor and increased brightness, not to mention the involved and highly interesting set of variations on an Aria in the final movement, the source of which is not disclosed. The Quartet IV in C minor is, by contrast, considerably darker in tone than the rest of this music and demonstrates a tiny amount of absorption of current musical trends; it is longer and in four movements rather than three. Like the C major quartet, it is more involving than the first two quartets; one wonders if Brunner and Tudor plan to continue on into the remaining two quartets, perhaps filling out the program with some other chamber ensemble music of Lefèvre, should it be available.
While this is significant literature for the clarinet, it is minor literature in most other respects. That is not to say it isn't enjoyable to listen to; it is, and Eduard Brunner sounds terrific; clearly he responds with dedication to this music of an early clarinet virtuoso who happens, like Brunner, to be a native of Switzerland. While Tudor's Jean Xavier Lefèvre: Quatour pour Clarinette et Cordes I-IV might not be for everyone, clarinet players and fans of the instrument will find it fulfilling just by virtue of Brunner's fine playing, and the other musicians provide a first-class backup for star of the show.