Strings Attached
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata Op.120 No.1 (1894) (arr. Geert van Keulen, clarinet and string quintet) [23:26]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke Op.73 (arr. van Keulen, clarinet and string quartet) [11:25]
Johannes BRAHMS
Sonata Op.120 No.2 (1894) (arr. van Keulen, clarinet and string sextet) [21:17]
Arno Piters (clarinet)
Members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Marleen Asberg, Nienke van Rijn, Keiko Iwata (violin), Edith van Moergastel, Judith Wijzenbeek (viola), Benedikt Enzler (cello), Rob Dirksen (double bass))
rec. 2-4 April 2012, Galaxy Studio, Mol, Belgium.
What can be better than the Brahms Clarinet Quintet? Three Brahms Clarinet Quintets! The other two are a gift from Geert van Keulen, who arranged the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120 – adding a string quintet to the first one and a whole sextet to No.2. The clarinet part was left untouched, while the piano part was divided between the strings with minimal alterations. For me, the main charm of the two sonatas is in the sonority of the clarinet, and so when strings replace the piano, the music loses less than when we replace the clarinet by, say, a viola. Also, there is a lot to gain. The piano is more fitting for the “liquid”, more turbulent passages, but there are not so many of these in the two sonatas; quite the opposite, the music of many pages is soft, languid, ethereal. Such music with long notes and smooth transitions is well suited for strings. The arrangement is done perfectly, as if Brahms himself created it. The recording balance is very good, the strings do not overwhelm the clarinet, but envelope it.

The opening movement of the First Sonata is mysterious and wistful, yet muscular. The slow movement is soft and tender, with cotton clouds dissolving in the mist. This movement benefits especially from the arrangement. The strings weave soft veils that wave in the breeze; it is serene. The Allegretto grazioso movement suits its name well – a dainty dance with Brahmsian ambiguity of smile and melancholy. The finale is cheerful and light-footed, like the play of kittens. There is drive without pressure and carefulness without laxity. The performance leaves a great aftertaste.

The opening Allegro amabile of the Second Sonata is bathed in a mellow glow. I feel a certain lack of complete characterization in the clarinet part – probably intentional, to make it blend better with its entourage; where a piano would create a sharper and more contrasting background, the clarinet could allow itself more character. In the Allegro appassionato middle movement the piano is most missed in the dynamic outer parts: the music is still gorgeous, but sounds crowded and more “earthy” than the more “liquid” piano version. Also, the shape and figurations of the accompaniment suit the piano better. The finale is relaxed. Brahms always was especially inventive in variations, and this is no exception. All the subtleties are well served by the performers. Except for the last variation and the exuberant coda, the general mood is gentle, lullaby-style.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke is almost a clarinet sonata. The first movement is full of Romantic longing, the clarinet is a bird flying over the troubled waves of the strings. The second piece is like a happy awakening on a sunny morning, Schumann at his sunniest. The third picture is all happy ecstasy, with ardent exclamations. All this, as usual with Schumann, has no lack of memorable melodies and surprises. I feel that the piano version has cleaner lines and an overall leaner feeling but, as with Brahms’ sonata, the soul of the music is in the clarinet, and nothing is lost there. The central episode of the third movement, where the “splashes” in the accompaniment can sometimes sound awkward on the piano, sounds perfectly natural with strings.

A big lover of the three works in their original versions, I must say that I genuinely enjoyed the transcriptions very much. The CD has been in my car on constant playing mode for a long time, and I don’t plan to stack it away soon. The lower strings are sometimes lacking in weight, but the recording balance between the strings as a group and the clarinet is perfect, and the sound is very clear.

The new arrangements do not replace the original versions with piano, but offer a beautiful alternative. They have been made with skill and love, and so have the performances. The strings of the Concertgebouw know their Brahms, so the result sounds as natural as one could hope. The silky clarinet of Arno Piters is smooth even in loud passages, though it seems that the clarinettist is holding back a little in places, and could allow more expressiveness. The liner notes by Geert van Keulen contain praise for musical arrangements, a little about their history, and a description of the arrangements that he made of the three works.

Oleg Ledeniov

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