Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, Op. 114 (1891) [25:31]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894) [24:00]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, Op. 120, No. 2 (1894) [22:19]
Karl Leister (clarinet); Ferenc Bognár (piano); Wolfgang Boettcher (cello)
rec. Teldec Studio, Berlin, Germany, 12-16 February 1997. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5600 [72:10]
It is well known that Brahms had announced his retirement as a composer, when he was so impressed by the playing of the Meiningen Orchestra clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld that he produced four of his greatest chamber works during the last years of his life. The three works on this disc plus the Clarinet Quintet represent the greatest music for the instrument after Mozart and Weber, at least through the end of the nineteenth century. All four compositions have that autumnal quality associated with late Brahms.
Karl Leister is one of the world’s foremost clarinetists, having performed for many years as principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic. In general, his tone is very mellow without the stridency that is typical of some clarinetists. Yet it does not preclude boldness when that is called for. He seems to me the perfect soloist for these particular pieces. There have been many recordings made with this combination of works, including the recent one by Martin Fröst on BIS that has been widely praised. In most cases, Leister’s tempos are slower than Fröst’s, but in no way do I feel Leister is dragging. Indeed, for example, the last movement of the Clarinet Sonata No. 1, marked vivace, while slower than Fröst’s, has greater lilt, and Fröst sounds rather rushed in comparison. Likewise in the same sonata’s third movement (Allegretto grazioso), Fröst’s focus seems to be on the allegretto marking, whereas Leister brings out the grazioso element better. And so it goes throughout the disc. The balance between clarinet and piano here is exemplary, too, without the clarinet being recorded so closely that the important piano part has to take a back seat. Brahms, after all a pianist himself, always treated the piano as an equal partner in his duo sonatas. Ferenc Bognár proves to be an excellent Brahmsian, with clear articulation and appropriate weighting of the bass notes. The Clarinet Trio is equally fine here, and Wolfgang Boettcher is warmly expressive as the cellist. These are truly beautiful performances, recorded very well in an intimate acoustic and without noticeable reverberation.
Colin Lawson provides detailed notes in the CD booklet, with the emphasis placed on the history of the works rather than any in-depth structural analysis. For this particular combination of chamber works featuring the clarinet, then, the performances and recording here are as good as any I’ve heard.
The performances and recording of these Brahms clarinet works are top-notch.