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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Cello in A minor Op.114 (1891) [25:57]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor Op.120 No.1 (1894) [22:51]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat Op.120 No.2 (1894) [21:34]
Karl-Heinz Steffens (clarinet), Michal Friedlander (piano), Ludwig Quandt (cello)
Rec. Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin in January 2004 (Trio); Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenburg in August 2002 (Sonatas) DDD
TUDOR 7115 [70:42]

Brahms wrote four major works for the clarinet in the last decade of his life, all for the virtuoso soloist Richard Mühlfeld. Three are included here in a potentially useful combination given that the remaining (and, arguably, quintessential) work, the Clarinet Quintet Op.115, has usually been paired on disc with Mozart’s offering in the same genre. All these works are gloriously autumnal in feeling and should be in the collection of every Brahms-lover.

The Clarinet Trio is conventionally structured in four movements with the slow movement placed second and a third movement which has more the feel of intermezzo than scherzo. The cello part is important and this is a rather darker work than the Quintet. Nevertheless, the adagio is particularly glorious. Here it receives a very well played and enjoyable performance, lacking only the last degree of autumnal glow. Comparison with Thea King’s version for Hyperion with Clifford Benson and Karina Georgian is marginally in King’s favour; for example there is a greater feeling of wonder in the opening of the adagio than is present here. The just pre-digital Hyperion sound is inferior but certainly acceptable. A fine version by Bernard Pieterson and members of the Beaux Art Trio on a Philips Duo should also be considered.

In the clarinet sonatas there is also much fine playing – as one would expect from principals of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (i.e. Steffens and Quandt). Plenty of refinement and complete technical assurance is on offer. These performances reinforced my view that these works are best heard in their original form rather than in the viola transcriptions that Brahms himself made to increase their accessibility. Incidentally he also transcribed them for violin but I have yet to come across the works in that form on disc. As in the Trio, the recorded sound is well-balanced and of high quality. The documentation is fulsome and given in English, German and French.

There is plenty of competition in the frequently recorded clarinet sonatas and choice is likely to be partly dictated by couplings. The present programme is apposite and generous, and the disc recommendable although not the last word on these great works.

Patrick C Waller



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