Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Sonata in F minor, op.120 no.1 (1894) [23:59]
Clarinet Sonata in E flat, op.120 no.2 (1894) [22:49]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Clarinet Sonata in E flat (1824) [19:57]
Robert SCHUMANNN (1810-1856)
Phantasiestücke, op.73 (1849) [11:50]
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
John Lenehan (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 25-27 January 2011. DDD
Emma Johnson has come a long way since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 1984, even picking up an MBE in 1996, but her many recordings have never before included Brahms' brace of Sonatas op.120. If that suggests categorisation under "collectors' item", certainly no one is likely to be disappointed by any of the ingredients - music, performances, audio quality - of this new release.
Johnson and the hugely experienced British pianist John Lenehan have recorded together previously (review). Here they give invigorative performances of great charm and intimacy from beginning to end. There’s natural and instinctive responsiveness to each other. This offers, for example, a controlled yet farm-fresh account of the Brahms Sonatas, magisterially articulated and elegantly paced.
The Nash Ensemble have just released an all-Schumann disc on Hyperion (CDA67923), and their clarinettist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown offer what is bound to be an immediate rival to Johnson and Lenehan's Phantasiestücke. On the whole though there are many more top-class cello version recordings of this work than there are for clarinet. David Shifrin and Carol Rosenberger recorded it with the two Brahms Sonatas on Delos twenty years back now (DE3025). This was actually a recreation of Clara Schumann's 'musical soirée' of 1894, when Brahms himself played piano to dedicatee Richard Mühlfeld's clarinet in the two Sonatas, whilst Clara and Mühlfeld performed the Phantasiestücke.
Johnson and Lenehan trump Shifrin and Rosenberger here with a surprise package of delightful proportions. Not everyone familiar with the core works by Brahms and Schumann will have heard the fifteen-year-old Mendelssohn's E flat Sonata, twenty minutes of almost mind-boggling lyrical fertility that make it as plain as daylight that young Felix had more innate musical genius than young Wolfgang. It provides an injection of youthful vivacity between the more reflective, wistful works of Brahms and Schumann. The Sonata has only been recorded a few times previously - Henk de Graaf's recent version on Brilliant Classics is the budget-price leader (92219), a double-disc also including the Phantasiestücke. Johnson and Lenehan though surely zoom to the top of the list for both works.
They have much more competition in the Sonatas, perhaps too much for any distinctions other than on personal taste to be made. This Nimbus release is more generous of timing than most. The coupling also makes for a strong sense of historical coherence where it may lack the serendipity delivered by Clarinet Sonatas like Hans Gál's op.84 (Campanella C130052), Gustav Jenner's op.5 (Atma ACD 22358) or Max Reger's own op.49 pair (Zigzag ZZT 0303012).
The appeal of excellent interpretations like these is still sometimes tarnished by inferior engineering, but here sound quality is very good - possibly just a little sec. It may be worth mentioning that this is not a Nimbus recording as such: "Nimbus Alliance is a new classical record label created to offer international distribution to recordings licensed to Nimbus Records but not originated by the company." The CD booklet is 'old-school' neat, informative and refreshingly modest, with detailed notes on the works by Johnson herself.
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Excellent interpretations.