Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, Op.120 No. 2 (1895) [21:43]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor, Op.120 No.1 (1895) [22:39]
Joseph Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano Op.105a (1893) [21:14]
Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer (clarinet), Hans Eijsackers (piano)
rec. June 2010, FWL Studios, Leipzig
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72505 [65:43]

Clarinetist Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer and pianist Hans Eijsackers present a well-conceived program. The main course consists of two sonatas by Brahms, in very fine readings. For dessert, the curious and adventurous get the bonus of a sonata by Rheinberger. It is fairly conservative and lacks the musical freedom of Brahms. Still, it is something that you might consider, even if you already have recordings of the Brahms.

Brahms certainly knew what he wanted when he ordered the two sonatas inside his Op.120. The musicians here decided to invert the order, and I must say it works both ways. The festive finale of the First serves as a perfect exclamation mark. The Second Sonata is more evenly sunny and amiable, more compact and unified in mood. Its first movement is dreamy and very melodic, airy and fragrant. The ensuing passionate Scherzo frames a solid, confident Trio, where the piano sounds quite organ-like. The last movement, a slow-movement-and-finale-in-one, is composed as a set of variations. Brahms was a great master of this form. The music passes through grandiose and intimate pages, gradually building to a jubilant ending.

The First Sonata starts amid somber hues. The opening movement is dramatic and tempestuous Ė practically the archetypal Romantic Allegro. The slow movement flows with serene beauty, much like its equivalent in the Clarinet Quintet. It is all milk and honey Ė sensual and tender. This is followed by the Allegretto grazioso, an elegant waltz, sweet and sunny, which embraces a more lyrical Trio section. The finale is vigorous and happy.

If Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger is remembered today, it is mostly due to his numerous compositions for organ. Yet he wrote a lot of other music, much of it for various chamber combinations. His Clarinet Sonata starts in a promising way, almost Schumanesque. Then the composer dives into a rather academic process of building a musical structure. Brahms was inspired; his clarinet sonatas may contain a lot of typical Brahms, but they are definitely far from the typical clarinet sonatas. Rheinberger seems more the artisan in comparison.

The first movement starts with melancholy and longing. It has a certain balletic air Ė or maybe I just imagine this due to its main themeís resemblance to the opening theme of Swan Lake. The music sports dramatic outbursts and lyrical cease-fires. It grew on me after several hearings. Still, I have this feeling of a badly tailored costume: too tight here, too free there, and not comfortable overall. The middle movement is not slow: Andante molto, with an animated narrative of the clarinet over fast rolling waves of the piano. The arrangement is rather uniform and unadventurous. The finale is pretty operatic, with some bravura passages and hard pressure. Counterpoint plays an important role.

Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer shows good control of the instrument. He has excellent legato, and can be very soft when needed. This helps to create an autumnal aura in the Brahms. In Rheinberger, the clarinet sound is often shrill. This can partially be explained by the general high tessitura, but I feel that the clarinet sound is generally less polished in this piece. The musicians demonstrate good coordination and balance. Their tempi and dynamics are superbly judged; they are never in a rush.

The main shortcoming of this disc is the piano sound. There seems to be nothing wrong with the playing of Hans Eijsackers, per se. However the recorded sound of the piano, especially in the low register, is hollow and weak. There is a ďstompingĒ effect which leads to the accompaniment being ragged; not very terrible, but certainly noticeable. I canít say whether this is the fault of the instrument or of the recording engineering.

Aart van der Wal provides a very interesting essay for the booklet. It tells us more about the composers and the music than youíll find in the average liner-note, and also gives you food for thought.

Summarizing, I have really warm feelings towards this disc, but I canít really say itís gold. There exist versions of the Brahms that arenít worse but have better piano sound. As for the Rheinberger, it is quite forgettable. Still, I feel that the musicians reached to the strings of my soul. And thatís what it all is about, isnít it?

Oleg Ledeniov

The shortcoming of this disc is the piano sound.