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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Sonatas: No. 1 in F minor, op. 120/1, No. 2 in E flat, op. 120/2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

3 Phantasiestücke, op. 73
Harold Wright (clarinet), Peter Serkin (pianoforte)
Recorded 25-29 August 1992, South Mountain Concert Hall, Pittsfield MA
BOSTON RECORDS BR 1005 CD [53.40]

 

Experience Classicsonline

Harold Wright (1927-1993) was principal clarinettist of the Casals Festival Orchestra for seven seasons, then for a further seventeen seasons took part in the Marlboro Festival with Rudolph Serkin. From 1970 he was principal clarinettist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra but also a regular collaborator in chamber music groups in leading US Festivals. In the course of his career he worked alongside most of the leading musicians of the day, and clarinettists will readily testify that a finer player never lived. In view of this the records are not exactly numerous. All the more reason to be grateful for the present offering, which should be enough to preserve his name for ever more.

I recently had to write about an Arte Nova disc by Ralph Manno and Alfred Perl in which practically everything was wrong that could be. Listen to Wright launch the first Sonata with a sublime simplicity of phrasing, at a tempo which gives him all the time he needs to express the music yet with enough lift to carry him through to the end of the movement, and somehow you know you’re getting the truth about the music. Peter Serkin has at times been accused of trying to establish a personal identity by doing things differently from his father no matter what the result, and there a few hints in this opening movement that he would like to be a little more rhapsodic. But he is also known to be a superbly responsive chamber musician, and he quickly understands what Wright is after and settles down to be a perfect partner. A certain boxiness in the acoustics of the hall initially gives the impression that he is bass-heavy in climaxes, but again, he quickly adjusts and this ceased to trouble me after the first few minutes. The recording is more than adequate to preserve Wright’s tone, which is sweet and round yet with a substance to it, and capable of infinite gradations of pianos and pianissimos. His breath control is seemingly unlimited. To maintain the "Andante un poco adagio" of this first Sonata at a properly slow tempo but with a sense of rocking movement that never lets it become becalmed sounds so easy when it is done like this (sample 1); many musicians live their lives out without achieving it. Or to enter with the finale’s theme in such a gently chuckling way as to bring a lump to the listener’s throat (sample 2); there is a lifetime’s experience combined here with the freshness of first discovery.

This is very late Brahms; only the "Four Serious Songs" and the virtually-completed Chorale-Preludes for organ remained to be written. Somehow Brahms, a heavy-headed sage in his youth, grew younger with the passing years, achieving a sublime simplicity in the opening movement of the second Sonata that remains a thing to be wondered at, even by his own standards. As does the no less sublime simplicity (sorry to keep repeating this phrase, but what else can I say?) of this performance of it (sample 3).

Since the Schumann pieces find Wright and Serkin fully alert to the composer’s intertwining of melody between the two partners it should be evident that this is a disc which, even if the sound was not quite state-of-the-art even ten years ago, cannot be missed by anyone who cares about either Brahms or about the clarinet. By chance, I heard it on the same day as the Menuhin group’s recording of the Brahms B flat Sextet (CDE 5 74957 2). Recordings like these, by musicians with links that go back to traditions of music-making that are fast disappearing, should be heard again and again by those musicians who are learning their craft today, not so as to clone them, but so as to understand and preserve some of the humanity which went into the making of them.


Christopher Howell

 



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