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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet
CD 1

Sonata No. 1 in F minor for clarinet and piano, Op.120, No. 1 (1894) [22:41]
Sonata No. 2 in E flat major for clarinet and piano, Op.120, No. 2 (1894) [20:21]
CD 2

Trio in A major for clarinet, cello and piano, Op.114 (1891) [25:29]
Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet, Op.115 (1891) [27:38]
Hans Christian Bræin (clarinet); Håvard Gimse (piano); Atle Sponberg (violin); Per Kristian Skalstad (violin);
Nora Taksdal (viola); Anne Britt Sævig Årdal (cello); Bjørg Værnes Lewis (cello) (Op. 114)
rec. March 2003, December 2004, Sofienberg Church, Oslo, Norway. DDD
SIMAX CLASSICS PSC 1259 [43.02 + 53.07]



This Simax release of Brahmsís Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet features Hans Christian Bræin, who we are told is "Norwayís foremost clarinettist". The son of the Norwegian composer Edvard Fliflet Bræin (1924-1976), Hans Christian was a principal clarinettist with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra for two periods in the 1970s and 1990s and also served as a member of the Oslo Sinfonietta. For ten years in the 1980s Bræin was a member of the Danish Esbjerg Music Ensemble. At present Bræin holds the position of professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, is a permanent member of the Cikada Ensemble and performs regularly with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.

Hans Christian Bræin has clearly carefully assembled an exquisite group of musicians for this Simax recording. He is accompanied in the two Clarinet Sonatas by the pianist Håvard Gimse, and for the Clarinet Trio both are joined by cellist Bjørg Værnes Lewis. Atle Sponberg leads the players for the Quintet accompanied by Bræin, violinist Per Kristian Skalstad, violist Nora Taksdal and cellist Anne Britt Sævig Årdal.

In an Indian summer of creativity towards the end of his career, Johannes Brahms composed in 1891 the Clarinet Trio and the Clarinet Quintet. Three years later there followed the two Clarinet (Viola) Sonatas. All the scores were especially composed for Richard Mühlfeld, the popular virtuoso clarinettist and principal of the Meiningen Orchestra, whose playing had been an inspiration to the aging Brahms. The legacy of Brahmsís association with Mühlfeld is that all four works rank among the supreme masterpieces of the clarinet repertoire and represent the purest distillation of Brahmsís thought in the chamber music medium.

The Quintet, cast in four movements, is in fact the last really expansive piece that Brahms wrote. It is a work of autumnal beauty. Here we find the serene contemplations of a man whose life is behind him and is given to introspection and quiet reminiscence. Bræin and his group in the opening movement allegro are gentle and sensitively unassertive. They evoke an atmosphere of profound nature-mysticism in the magnificent adagio. I love the way the players provide a carefree ambling mood in the serenade-like andantino and in the con moto - finale they perform with a sense of gentility and nostalgia, communicating an underlying sombre colouring. This fine performance is right up there with the best available versions. For their satisfying and refined playing I still prefer the account from clarinettist Herbert Stähr and members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet on Philips Duo 446 172-2.

Also composed in 1891 the Trio was thought by the composer to be a better work than the Quintet; although audiences have traditionally preferred the latter. The four movement Trio embodies all the resource and subtlety of Brahmsí late style and is remarkable for the consistency with which it exploits the disturbance, anxiety and shadow of the minor key. The brief excursions into the major mode often turn out to offer only an illusory consolation.

In the sombre and extended opening allegro of the Trio Bræin, Lewis and Gimse communicate a mood of melancholy and foreboding. Especially impressive in the serenely philosophical extended adagio is the groupís serious interpretation of resignation with its convincing funereal overtones. In the andantino grazioso the trio offer a ripe performance that evokes the salon manner of Brahmsís popular Liebeslieder Waltzes. In the strenuous and demanding agitations of the finale - allegro the players provide a reading that is bracing and rhythmically supple. Bræinís superb performance on Simax offers a satisfying alternative to the benchmark recording of expressive eloquence and refinement from clarinettist George Pieterson and members of the Beaux Arts group on Philips Duo 438 365-2.

After completing the Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 108 in 1888, Brahms returned to the duo sonata form just once more; in 1894. In quick succession he composed the pair of Clarinet Sonatas that were published together the following year as his Op. 120. Brahms also transcribed the scores for viola and piano and the versions are virtually identical. It is with these chamber works that Brahms bids a permanent farewell to chamber music.

Bræin and Gimse prove themselves to be a formidable partnership in these two sonatas offering enthusiastic and expressive playing throughout. In the four movement F minor Sonata the duoís playing gathers strength as the music progresses to emerge triumphant. It is impressive how after playing of strength and spirit the partnership achieves a mood of relative calm and relaxation in the coda. The duo provide a mood of childlike boisterousness in the vivace - finale. In the extended opening movement allegro amabile of the three movement E flat major Sonata Bræin and Gimse expertly emphasise a gentle feminine quality providing lyrical passages of great beauty. It is striking how they robustly interpret the brusque and impetuous central movement scherzo with such admirable control. This is a performance of assurance and buoyancy with the varying moods of the unsettling and agitated concluding movement. These are excellent interpretations that will provide considerable listening pleasure. However, for their special warmth and depth of expression my preferred accounts are those from Thea King and Clifford Benson from 1984 on Hyperion Helios CDH55158.

This Simax release is reasonably brightly lit and closely recorded, detailed and well balanced with the advantage of an appealing timbre from the clarinet. Adding to the appeal of the issue the booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald are both helpful and interesting. The performances are consistently impressive throughout all four scores and individually they can sit comfortably alongside any of my long time favourite versions without unseating them. For those looking for a collection that includes all of Brahmsís music for clarinet this Simax double would now be my preferred choice.

Michael Cookson

 



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