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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major, op. 120 (1894) [21:13]
Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F-minor, op. 120 (1894) [22:44]
Jon Manasse (clarinet); Jon Nakamatsu (piano)
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, January 2006
Text included
Experience Classicsonline

These two sonatas are part of the last flowering of Brahms’ genius; only the Vier Ernste Gesänge followed among his substantial works. As is well-known these sonatas were the product, along with the Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet, of his friendship with the phenomenal clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Although the clarinet had always appealed to the composer it was only at this time of his career that he wrote major works incorporating it. All four of the clarinet pieces have been justifiably popular and frequently recorded. On this disc we have the interesting duo of the co-directors of the Cape Cod (Mass) Chamber Music Festival performing.

Since the Sonata No. 2 appears first on the disc we will proceed in the same fashion. This is the less serious and more amiable of the two works and the performers convey these qualities well, while not missing the more serious elements. Nakamatsu provides a lot of the energy in the first movement and that is important as the movement can get a little too dreamy in the hands of some players. Manasse is best in the passages calling for the clarinet’s low register, which was one of the instrument’s attributes that most interested Brahms. Manasse’s playing of the descending passage leading into the coda is especially well done. The middle movement is a scherzo, though a serious one, and brings out some of Manasse’s finest playing, emphasizing the flowing nature of which the clarinet is capable. In the variations of the last movement we have something of a homage to Schumann. Both performers enjoy the composer’s wonderful contrasts from one variation to another and communicate this to us. 

In the first sonata economy of means is primary. Our performers not only handle the serious aspects of the first movement well, but also the plaintive ones. Manasse’s phrasing is especially good here. The monothematic slow movement shows that the clarinetist can also do well with the instrument’s upper register, but I felt that both performers could have made more of the elegiac nature of this movement. The scherzo contains the last of the composer’s dance sections and this is well handled, although the same cannot be said for the first trio section. The second scherzo section is a little more interesting. Finally, we get to what is structurally the most engaging movement in the two sonatas where the main theme is almost entirely constructed out of the interval of the second. Manasse and Nakamatsu take this movement in a very animated and carefree way, although at the end I felt that the pianist was let down by over-exuberant recording of the piano. 

Overall, these performances are a little more on the mellow side than on the dynamic, but I think many would agree that the music calls for this. As indicated above there are some problems with the recording of the piano. In addition the sound of the Academy of Arts and Letters is drier than one would like for this music. The price of the disc is also somewhat exorbitant for the amount of music contained. Still, this is a small drawback to an otherwise well-played and thought-out recording by two dynamic young performers.

William Kreindler


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