Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120 No.1 (1894) [21:56]
Sonata in E flat minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120 No.2 (1894) [21:59]
Daniel KESSNER (b.1946)
Dances for Clarinet and Guitar (1997) [12:13]
Mitchell Lurie (clarinet); Leona Lurie (piano) - Brahms
Richard Lesser (clarinet); Jordan Charnofsky (piano) - Kessner
rec. 1972 (Brahms), 2000 (Kessner)

I have my own private impression about Brahms. You may find it weird but here it is. I see him as an elephant that once had this Zen dream of turning into a butterfly. He woke up and decided to do it for real. The elephant spent all day on meadows, watching butterflies, copying their moves, dancing with them. And towards the end of his life he could do practically everything they did. Maybe he even learnt to fly, gracefully waving his big ears. At least, his soul did.

There is no better supporting example for this view of Brahms than his two last chamber pieces, the gentle Clarinet Sonatas Op.120. Their lazy mellowness, hushed pastel tones, generous melodies can serve as a definition of "autumnal music". Many sincere thanks to clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld of Meiningen for inspiring the composer to create them, as well as the Clarinet Trio and the sublime Clarinet Quintet.

To serve these masterpieces well, one must have a perfect blend of the two voices, and the perfect intonational control of the clarinet. One needs also a sense of forward momentum: calm must not turn into boring! Yet one should savor the serene tranquility of the quiet moments. One needs the feeling of the overall structure and the ability to project this feeling to listeners. And we have all of this in the recording by Mitchell and Leona Lurie. The piano may be a bit subdued: this recording is the clarinet's celebration. The instrument gleams and shines like a magnificent fairy-tale king. This is one of those performances where the music seems to flow through your body, like vital cosmic energy. Every corner is round, every note is polished and carefully attached. The First Sonata's Andante is sweet and silky. The Second Sonata's Allegro appassionato is not hard-driven and does not stick out of the structure, as it does in some other recordings. And even when our elephant starts fooling around, as in the exuberant final movements, the texture is still clear and accurate. It is like watching two ballroom dancers spin together with perfect technique, never stomping on each other's toes.

There is only one moment, in the first clarinet's entry of the First Sonata's finale, where its voice is suddenly shrill. But then, it is less than a second. I could wish for a more spacious recording of the piano sound, and for a more articulated presence of the piano's lower register. But for 1972 it's not bad at all.

The recording of the Brahms sonatas was issued on an LP, but it was too short-timed for a full CD. So the producer added a fill-up, another work for clarinet, this time paired with a guitar. The clarinetist is one of Lurie's former pupils, Richard Lesser. He was the principal clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic for 35 years. He is paired here with a fine guitarist Jordan Charnofsky. Another former pupil of Mitchell Lurie is the composer, Daniel Kessner. Although at some point he changed from clarinet to flute, and is now a well-known flautist, his intimate knowledge of clarinet is evident. Dances for Clarinet and Guitar, written exactly one hundred years after Brahms' death, are modern and yet lyrical, very listenable yet not "easy listening music". The four parts of the suite hold so well together that they could be named a "Sonata" as well.

In the opening Sicilienne, the two instruments seem to have divided the duties: while the clarinet sings, the guitar does the dancing. The music is slow, with mysterious glimmering and a sense of a slowly moving pendulum. The dancers move in circles, rising on their toes and pausing. One of the themes will reappear in other movements, changing disguises on the way: look for it! Balkan Dance is energetic and concentrated. The steady punctuation of the pulse is gripping. Kessner's Sarabande weaves spacious, transparent veils over slow arpeggiated steps. The last movement is Fire Dance, and Kessner describes it as "someone dancing on a bed of hot coals". There is a Rite-of-Springish rhythmic urgency and rough, jarring honks.

I sometimes felt that the musical content was thin with much space being covered by few ideas. But this can be OK for dances, and maybe that's why it's not a "Sonata". Also, there is a hypnotic effect I can't deny. The music holds its values and remains interesting on repeated listening. It explores well the timbral combinations of clarinet and guitar. The performers are first class; their playing is assured and imaginative. The guitar is full-voiced. Finally, the recording quality is just excellent, presenting the two instruments in full 3-D.

Oleg Ledeniov