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Max REGER (1873-1916)
Clarinet Sonata Op. 49 No.1 in A flat [19:00]
Clarinet Sonata Op. 49 No.2 in F sharp minor [18:12]
Albumblatt [1:29]
Florent Hťau (clarinet)
Patrick Zygmanowski (piano)
rec. líEglise de Bon Secours, Paris XI, 1-4 July 2002. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

The clarinet sonatas of Brahms were the catalyst for Regerís first forays into the genre. His Op.49 pair was written as a direct response to his first hearing Brahmsí Op. 120. They were written fast, and were completed within just a few days of this first acquaintance with their model. The Brahms connection is a useful starting point for performers and listeners alike when coming to this music. Regerís textures are more dense and his modulations more daring, but Brahmsí disciplined approach to melodic phrasing and chordal voicing is at the heart of Regerís aesthetic.

Florent Hťau and Patrick Zygmanowski regularly fall back on Brahmsian practice in their performance of the Op. 49 sonatas, and no more so than in the opening movement of the second. The density of Regerís accompaniments are here countered by a confident and strident clarinet sound, firmly intoning the melodic line to imbue the music with a sense of inevitability that is pure Brahms.

The speed at which these works were written was not unusual for Reger, and many performers of his chamber music have taken this as a licence to play his music in a throwaway, slightly dismissive style, concentrating, like the composer himself, on the bigger picture rather than the numerous details. One occasional consequence is a lack of rubato or shaping of phrases. Hťau and Zygmanowski are clearly aware of this danger, and their approach to phrasing is scrupulous. They take both sonatas at a relatively fast pace, but regularly hold back on the tempo to shape phrases and sections. Most of this rubato, it must be said, is not mentioned in the score, and is often taking to extremes. However, the flow of the music is never interrupted; Regerís bigger picture is always given the foreground, and the performers know just how far they can stretch their indulgences.

What is less forgivable is the lack of dynamic variety, especially given the precision with which Reger notates his dynamics. The rubato shaping of phrases in the recording substitutes Regerís similarly painstaking approach to do the same thing with dynamics. Admittedly, the score often calls for impractical and sudden dynamic changes within fast and complex passages, but the performers seem to treat the notated dynamics as optional. Perhaps we are all better off without the fff clarinet passages in the top register, but the pp entries and phrase endings below the stave lose their magic when played mf.

The recording was made in a church acoustic, which suits the clarinet better than the piano. Hťau has a distinctive, woody sound, which benefits from the roundness of tone afforded by the warm resonance. The piano, by contrast, lacks definition in this environment, and the susceptibility of Regerís complex textures to congestion and muddying regularly becomes apparent. The acoustic also has the effect of amplifying the upper bass register, which also works to the detriment of Regerís dense chord voicing.

But for all this, the overall impression is of the performers coming to this relatively unusual repertoire as an opportunity rather than as a problem to solve. Their daring rubato speaks of a confident approach to the interpretation of the music, an interpretation that excels in logic and coherence. The sense of energy and momentum they bring to each movement seems intended to dispel reservations that audiences may have about the density of Regerís textures. It will probably work, but they would win more converts to Regerís cause with a little more attention to the details of his scores.

Gavin Dixon














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