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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four Preludes and Serious Songs Op. 121 (1896 arr. orch. Detlev Glanert, 2004-5) [24:28]
Detlev GLANERT (b. 1960)
Weites land (2016) [11:25]
Johannes BRAHMS
Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op. 120 No 1 (1894 arr. Luciano Berio, 1986) [22:45]
Michael Nagy (baritone)
Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Olari Elts
rec. November 2014 (Songs), June 2016 (Weites Land, sonata), Helsinki Music Centre
ONDINE ODE1263-2 [59:12]

The presiding spirit of this disc is Brahms, but Brahms as seen by two more recent composers. First we have an orchestral transcription of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs by Detlev Glanert. Glanert was born in Hamburg, as was Brahms, became a pupil of Hans Werner Henze and has concentrated, as only a German composer can, on writing operas. So far there have been ten of these, and his Caligula has been widely admired and also recorded. His idiom, like that of his mentor, starts from late romanticism and moves in the direction of expressionism, but the expressionism of Zemlinsky and Korngold rather than that of Schoenberg or Berg.

He has a particular enthusiasm for Brahms, of which this version of the Four Serious Songs is one of the fruits. The songs were one of Brahms’s last compositions. The immediate occasion for them seems to have been last illness of his dear friend Clara Schumann, linked with a premonition of his own death. The texts are from the Bible, three sombre ones from the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus) and St Paul’s well-known hymn to love from the New (1 Corinthians). Glanert scores the songs for a Brahms-sized orchestra though with a harp, an instrument Brahms himself rarely used. He added a Prelude to each song and a Postlude after the last one. These pieces are all about two minutes long and they start from a Brahmsian idiom, though moving forwards as I have mentioned, and they provide a frame for the songs. They are sombre, as suits the work, but introduce some rhythmic variety, variety of timbre and some augmented harmony (the expressionist effect), but none too much. They are not in the least like a piece of concrete brutalism set next to a gracious old Palladian building. I like them very much.

There follows Weites Land (distant country), an orchestral work written “with Brahms’s fourth symphony firmly in view” as the sleevenote says. I think it must be a curtain raiser for that work and it uses the opening motif of the symphony as its basis. It is an impressive single movement. Again it is written for a Brahms-sized orchestra, without the harp this time but with an extra trumpet.

Finally, we have Luciano Berio’s version of Brahms’s first clarinet sonata. Brahms had been thinking of giving up composition when he came across the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, who inspired him to compose the two clarinet sonatas, the clarinet trio and the sublime clarinet quintet. To the great regret of all clarinettists and many Brahmsians he did not write a clarinet concerto. This transcription by Berio of the first sonata is not even covertly a concerto, either, as the clarinet writing is of a kind appropriate to a chamber work. The first movement is sombre but the other three more light-hearted. Berio’s orchestration of the piano part is discreet – like Glanert’s of the songs it uses a Brahms-size orchestra – and the only addition I noted was a short orchestral introduction; in the original the clarinet starts with the piano straightaway. Although I am normally enthusiastic about transcriptions I don’t find this as successful as that of the songs by Glanert as the inflation of the piano part sits oddly with the solo clarinet line. However, I am clearly in a minority here as many people like it and there are several previous recordings.

The performances all seem to me exemplary. Michael Nagy sings well; he has a rich fruity baritone and he really projects the words. The final song in its orchestral version sounds like a riposte to Alberich’s renunciation of love which sets the tragedy of Wagner’s Ring in motion. Karl Kriikku is a kind of modern Mühlfeld, having inspired a number of concertos and other works for his instrument from Scandinavian composers. He knows his way round the Brahms, a core work for the instrument. Olari Elts and the Helsinki Philharmonic sound thoroughly inside the idiom, or combination of idioms. The recording needs slightly careful balancing; I thought at first that Kriikku’s clarinet needed a bit more help from the engineers, but with care I found I got a very natural sound suggestive of a medium-sized concert hall. One might have expected a German label to mount this programme; all credit to Ondine for taking it on. The sleevenote is in English and Finnish; the texts of the songs, however, are in German and English only.

There are of course many recordings of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs in their original piano version. There is another recording of the Glanert version by Teddy Tahu Rhodes (ABC 4764363), with other orchestral songs and excerpts from the Brahms German Requiem. There have also been other orchestrations: my shelves turned up a fine version with Robert Holl, in an orchestration by Erich Leinsdorf (Ottavo OTR C98402). Of the other recordings of the Berio version of the clarinet sonata I suppose the front runner is the one in which Chailly conducts a whole programme of Berio transcriptions (Decca 4762830) with Fausto Ghiazza on the clarinet for the sonata. This is the only version so far of Weites Land. I hope to hear more of Glanert.

Stephen Barber



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