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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Trio in B flat major, Op.11 (1797-8) for piano, clarinet and cello [19:56]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio in A minor, Op.114 (1891) for piano, clarinet and cello [26:26]
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Sextet in C major, Op.37 (1935) for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn [29:54]
Jonathan Cohler (clarinet), Claremont Trio (Emily Bruskin (violin), Julia Bruskin (cello) and Donna Kwong (piano)) James Sommerville (horn) and Mai Motobuchi (viola)
rec. Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA, USA, 2008
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-122 [76:15]

This disc is another thrilling demonstration of the artistry of clarinettist Jonathan Cohler who, together with the wonderful Claremont Trio and another two guest musicians, has produced a programme of three core chamber works involving the clarinet. Any disc that includes anything by Beethoven is bound to please me for his music is the bedrock of my passion for music. I always find myself returning to him as my musical base whatever other composers have at times beguiled me. Jonathan Cohler wrote the notes for this disc and he raises an absolutely crucial point about tempi about which Beethoven was so insistent. The composer’s letter to fellow composer Ignaz Franz Edler von Mosel (1772-1844) is instructive: “As far as I am concerned, I have long thought of giving up the senseless terms, Allegro, Andante, Adagio, Presto, and for this Mälzel’s metronome offers the best opportunity”. It was Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny who provided the metronome markings for this trio and many other works besides since Beethoven himself had not managed to complete the metronomization of all his works by the time of his death. Cohler clearly regards the indication as significant with his use of the exclamation mark after it - the first movement set at “quarter note equals 176!”. I cannot recall another rendition of the movement as I write and though it does sound fast it also sounds perfect in speed terms. I believe that we all have an ideal speed for things in our minds. At times I find myself thinking that speeds should either be faster or slower even when it concerns works I’ve never heard before — I’m sure I’m not alone in this. These musicians take the movement at this speed which must be quite demanding but which makes it sound thrilling. The contrast couldn’t be greater when the second movement opens with its beautiful tune played at what seems like an incredibly slow pace but how wonderful that makes it sound. The final movement sums things up and rounds the trio off nicely. It all serves to remind us how brilliant Beethoven was at whatever he set himself and listening to this happy, jolly and amusing music it is hard to imagine him as the surly and difficult man we are told he was.

Brahms got his inspiration for writing his trio, his Quintet in B minor, Op.115 and much more besides after hearing the clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfeld in Meiningen where he often went to relax and unwind. As Clara Schumann later observed in a letter to Brahms after hearing Mühlfeld play the quintet “... it is as if he was specially created for your works.” Cohler is a true ‘descendent’ of Mühlfeld and there is no doubt both Brahms and Clara Schumann would have waxed as lyrical over his playing as they did over the music of his illustrious ‘predecessor’. In fact we are lucky that Mühlfeld proved such an inspiration to Brahms since he had previously indicated to his publisher Fritz Simrock that he had done with composing. In the event this rapturous and substantial work is a veritable joy to get to know and incorporates what we love and admire most about Brahms, his facility for writing the most sumptuous tunes that so often tug at the heartstrings.

The Brahms piece came almost one hundred years after Beethoven’s and we move on almost another half century to the remaining work, Dohnányi’s sextet in which the three musicians are joined by James Sommerville (horn) and Mai Motobuchi (viola). It was extremely interesting to read that in fact Dohnányi and Brahms met after Brahms arranged performances of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No.1 — Dohnányi couldn’t be present on the first occasion but managed to get there for the second. In a comment made to Dohnányi’s teacher Janós Koessler Brahms said “I could not have written it better myself”; praise indeed. Some people are destined to suffer from as much misfortune and tragedy as would be likely to be inflicted in several lifetimes. Poor Dohnányi was one of these unfortunates, with the loss of two sons in the war, one as a prisoner of the Russians and another executed by the Nazis for collaboration in a plot to kill Hitler. Added to these tragedies was an oft repeated falsehood that he was a Nazi collaborator, something that dogged him for the rest of his life and which made settling abroad and resulted in his finding employment difficult. Despite all these tribulations his naturally upbeat outlook helped him overcome the worst that life could throw at him and he continued to teach and compose. This was pursued firstly in Argentina then in the USA where he finally found a home and a job.

The sextet is a sunny, optimistic work with overtones of Brahms as well as Johann Strauss, as Cohler points out. Those influences manifest themselves throughout within a framework that is distinctively his own. The opening of the finale is suitably jazzy as befits a composer writing in the 1930s when jazz flashes in classical music were very much in vogue.

All three works are played with enthusiasm, verve and panache by all concerned and the disc is enjoyable from start to finish. These are three contrasting works with Jonathan Cohler anchoring proceedings throughout with his consummate skill. I note that he also produced and co-engineered the disc showing a determination that emphasises his boundless energy and joy in making music.

Steve Arloff


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