This is a generous CD, offering both of Brahms’s clarinet sonatas and his clarinet trio as well. I know of only one or two other releases that join these three works on a single disc. One of them, coincidentally—a historical reissue on the Doremi label with Yona Ettlinger, Uzi Wiesel,and Pnini Salzman—I reviewed in 27:5.
The pieces offered here make up three-quarters of a group of late works Brahms wrote for virtuoso clarinetist and friend Richard Mühlfeld, the fourth being theRead more Clarinet Quintet, op. 115. The clarinet sonatas are as often likely to be heard on viola, a practice Brahms himself initiated when he suggested it to violinist Joseph Joachim. The two instruments share roughly the same range and similar tonal palette; yet, as I noted in my previous review, the moods conveyed can be somewhat different. Where the viola brings out the plaintive longing and melancholic sadness so prevalent in Brahms’s music, the clarinet lends a wistful, reflective character to these scores.
There are many wonderful recordings of these sonatas on clarinet, and of the trio. Thea King, now on Hyperion’s budget Helios label, and Karl Leister on Orfeo, are superb in the sonatas. My favorite, though, has to be Harold Wright with Peter Serkin on the Boston label. For the trio, there is almost an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but one would not go wrong with Richard Stoltzman, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma on Sony.
Aside from the aforementioned Doremi—which falls into a different category as a historical document—the current Tudor release of the same program is doubly desirable: first and foremost, for excellent performances and recorded sound; and second, for saving capital outlay by combining all three works on a single CD. What I really like about these readings is the tonal blending of the instruments. To be sure, each player is in his or her own place and can be heard as a distinct entity, but as an ensemble, they dovetail phrase entrances and endings in such a way that a note sounded on the clarinet or cello (in the Trio) morphs seamlessly, almost imperceptibly into its continuation on the piano. Listen, for example, to Quandt’s cello’s entrance, picking up from piano, at 0:37 in the first movement of the Trio. This is but the earliest instance of a keen tonal sculpting that is maintained throughout.
In the sonatas, Karl-Heinz Steffens’s clarinet may not quite have that extra measure of plum-pudding richness that distinguishes Wright’s tone, but there is no question as to his technical security and musical insight. Israeli pianist Michal Friedlander is an ideal chamber music partner—one is aware of her presence, but she does not dominate. This is a highly recommendable release.