Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Piano and Clarinet in F minor Op. 120 No. 1 (1894) [21:53]
Sonata for Piano and Clarinet in E flat Major Op. 120 No. 2 (1894) [20:24]
Carl REINECKE (1824-1910)
Undine Op. 167 Sonata for Piano and Clarinet in E minor (1885) [19:49]
Introduzione ed Allegro appassionato for Clarinet and Piano Op. 256 (1901) [7:46]
Michael Collins (clarinet)
Michael McHale (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, 2014
CHANDOS CHAN10844 [69:55]
This is a most interesting and thought-provoking disc by Michael Collins and Michael McHale. It not only brings us Brahms’ two late masterpieces but also two works from an unjustly neglected Romantic composer, Carl Reinecke. On the evidence of these fine recordings his music should be better known.

The Brahms sonatas have long been a mainstay of the Romantic clarinet repertoire and justly so. These two fine works, along with his Clarinet Trio Op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115, both dating from 1891, were composed after a period of relative compositional inactivity, in what some have described as an ‘Indian summer’. All four of these works were composed after the composer had stated that his compositional career was at an end, yet after a visit to Meiningen, where he heard the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld perform, he was inspired to compose once again, showing in the Trio and Quintet, that he had not lost any of his ability as a composer. In the next couple of years Brahms composed four sets of pieces for solo piano, before in 1894 he wrote to Mühlfeld, saying that he had completed “two modest sonatas with piano”. Mühlfeld and Brahms gave the first private performance in September 1894 before the public premiere which took place the following January. Rather than the musings of an old man, these are inspired pieces and full of invention and rank amongst his finest chamber works. Brahms clearly studied the instrument as well as having discussed its capabilities with Mühlfeld. His writing uses the full range of the clarinet, from the higher register in the opening Allegro appassionato of Sonata No. 1, to the mellower sounds of the instrument in the final Andante con moto section of Sonata No. 2. The performances here are excellent and stand up well against the versions by Thea King (Hyperion CDA 66202) and Gervase de Peyer (Chandos CHAN 8563).

Where this disc really wins is in its coupling. We hear two works by Carl Reinecke, the German composer, conductor, pianist and teacher, who is probably best known as the man that Liszt chose to teach piano to his daughter Cosima. Liszt described Reinecke’s pianistic touch as “beautiful, gentle, legato and lyrical”. I don’t have that much of his music on CD, but that’s mainly because despite his being a prolific composer there is a limited choice of recordings from which to chose. What I do have I tend to like. His music is deeply Romantic in style showing the influence of both Schumann and Brahms, but it does not lack in either individuality or interest.

One of his most individualistic pieces is Undine, originally composed as a Flute Sonata. It is recorded here in the composer’s own arrangement for clarinet and piano. Undine is a female water-spirit in the literary works of the likes of E. T. A. Hoffmann and whilst the work cannot be regarded as programmatic, there is much that is water-like about it. There are sections of the piano writing that give a rippling effect whilst for the clarinet there are short phrases that remind me of Smetana’s Vltava from Má Vlast. It is a substantial four movement work that offers the listener a great deal of enjoyment. It has not been served that well by the record companies, with this recording being only the second that I know of. It has fared slightly better in its original format for flute and piano, the other being by Oliver Dartevelle on Naxos 8.570181. Whilst the Naxos has a lot to offer, this present recording is a clear winner, Michael Collins’ performance is more spirited and has greater panache than that of Dartevelle, and the recorded sound is better too.

The final piece is the short Introduzione ed Allegro appassionato, which bears the dedication Herrn Musikdirector Kammervirtuosen MÜHLFELD, which clearly links it to the two sonatas of Brahms. Though short it packs a lot into its eight or so minutes. It is highly virtuosic piece which I imagine would be taxing for most players. It shows just what a talented player Richard Mühlfeld must have been. As with Undine, I prefer the Collins performance. His virtuosity wins through over that of Dartevelle on Naxos.

These are excellent performances and the two musicians show a real understanding of each other and of their place in the music. The performance is backed up by Chandos’ usual excellent recorded sound and informative booklet essay - a winner all-round.

Stuart Sillitoe

Another review ...

Since Brahms was inconsiderate enough to write only two clarinet sonatas, the question on CD inevitably arises as to how the disc is to be coupled. Here an imaginative solution is found in the shape of Reinecke’s Introduction and Allegro, written seven years after the Brahms sonatas and dedicated to the same player, Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms had written those late masterpieces. To round out the disc we are given Reinecke’s own arrangement of his Undine sonata, written originally for flute and comparatively more familiar in that guise, but which fits equally well on the clarinet and indeed sounds as if could have been originally conceived with it in mind.

Michael Collins and Michael McHale perform all the works here peerlessly, and the recording in the familiar Chandos acoustic of Potton Hall is everything that one could expect. The booklet note by Nicholas Marston neatly links the work of the two composers, and are provided complete with French and German translations. What more could we possibly want?

Oh, and this imaginative coupling is unique in the catalogue, too, as far as I can tell. Indeed there seems to be only one other recording of Undine in its clarinet version, and that Naxos release comes with a very different coupling of other chamber works by Reinecke which feature the clarinet as a constituent of the ensemble.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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