Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120 No. 1 (1894) [23:59]
Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E Flat Major, Op. 120 No. 2 (1894) [22:49]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Clarinet Sonata in E Flat Major (1824) [19:57]
Robert SCHUMANNN (1810-1856)
Phantasiestucke, Op. 73 (1849) [11:50]
Emma Johnson (Clarinet), John Lenehan (Piano)
rec. 25 - 27 January 2011, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI 6153 [78:44]
Brahms's Clarinet Sonatas have always been overshadowed by his masterly Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio. They are also less well-known than his three Violin Sonatas. Both these Op. 120 works share a nostalgic and elusive mood that may go some way towards explaining their comparative neglect. This magnificent disc could well change this situation.
The First Clarinet Sonata has great melodic charm and is more immediately attractive than its companion work. It is curious how the second movement seems to reinterpret the mood of the first of Brahms's Piano Pieces Op. 119. The phrases droop in a similar way and there is a profound sense of reflection, beautifully realised here by both these sensitive performers. In the third movement, the tempi and phrasing are ideally judged; a glorious rendition. Throughout the whole piece, Johnson and Lenehan revel in the mellowness of Brahms's late inspiration to stunning effect.
The Second Clarinet Sonata is perhaps a lesser work than the outstanding first. Listeners will decide for themselves if the variation finale provides a fully satisfying close to the piece. What is not in doubt is the calibre of this performance, which is outstanding in every respect. Johnson's luscious tone and Lenehan's idiomatic approach to Brahms's piano textures make this a particularly satisfying interpretation.
The principal rival version is the fine Chandos recording featuring Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Prior. There is not much to choose between these two recordings and anyone who owns the Chandos disc should feel no need to replace it. Nevertheless, Johnson and Lenehan get closer to the heart of these splendid pieces, particularly in the middle movements of the First Sonata and in the central movement of No. 2.
Mendelssohn's 1824 Sonata is a highly accomplished work written in the composer's early teens. The influence of Weber hovers benignly over much of the first movement, although there are hints of greater individuality, particularly in some of the brilliant piano passages. The decision to open the second movement with the clarinet unaccompanied is a lovely touch. This initial theme looks forward to the main idea of the slow movement of the “Italian Symphony”. Johnson and Lenehan fully realise the melancholic charm of this appealing movement. The finale is, in many ways, the most characteristic part of the Sonata and anticipates the brilliance of Mendelssohn's later piano concertos. This is not a great work by any means, but it is eminently worth hearing, especially in such an ideally paced reading.
Schumann's Phantasiestucke are given a relaxed and expansive performance. These attractive pieces also appear in the above mentioned Chandos disc with Gervase de Peyer; the present interpretation is every bit as perceptive. The third and final movement seems absolutely right here, as Schumann's quixotic changes in mood are superbly registered by both performers.
This disc is probably the first choice for listeners interested in this programme and it is difficult to imagine these performances being surpassed. The sound quality is fully worthy of such distinguished music making and the booklet notes, by Emma Johnson herself, are interesting as well as informative.
An outstanding new Nimbus release, excellently engineered.