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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor, Op.120 No.1 (1895) [21:52]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, Op.120 No. 2 (1895) [20:21]
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano Op. 114 (1891) [23:53]
Robert Oberaigner (clarinet)
Michael Schöch (piano)
Norbert Anger (cello)
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, 2017
MDG SACD 903 2049-6 [66:13]

Brahms had completed his second string quintet, Op. 111, and was minded to retire from composing, but in 1891 he visited Meiningen castle where he was impressed by the playing of Richard Mühfeld, first clarinettist in the Duke’s orchestra there. He got Mühfeld to explain the workings of the instrument to him in detail and then went on to compose four chamber works including the clarinet: the lovely quintet Op. 115 and the three works included on this disc. The quintet is one of the finest of all Brahms’s chamber works; these other three are charming but minor. Even so, they are all worth hearing, as is everything by Brahms, and they are, of course, core repertoire for clarinettists.

I tend to locate clarinet works, clarinettists and indeed the instruments themselves, on a range from the perky to the soulful. Brahms’s clarinet works all tend to the soulful end, with much more lyrical than virtuoso writing for the instrument. The piano parts, however, are surprisingly intricate and complex. Brahms was himself an excellent pianist and enjoyed playing these works with Mühfeld. He also later made arrangements of the two sonatas for viola and for violin, but the clarinet versions are the originals.

The F minor sonata has a sombre opening which leads to a dramatic movement, the most serious of all the movements here. After this the mood lightens. There is a gentle Andante with a lyrical line for the clarinet. Then, instead of a scherzo there is a Ländler, with a contrasting trio. The finale is lively with staccato writing for the clarinet.

The companion sonata is in E flat, in three movements. The opening theme has a very wide compass and is followed by two more lyrical themes, developed in sonata form. The middle movement is a serious and vigorous piece with a solemn episode suggesting a hymn. The finale is a set of variations which includes one stormy one in the minor.

The trio is characterized by high writing for the cello, which converses with the clarinet often in some opposition to the piano. The mournful opening theme is transformed into a tragic statement. The second subject, though in the major, continues the melancholy mood. The development is curtailed and we find ourselves in the middle of the recapitulation. The second movement is an Adagio notable for the interweaving of the instrumental lines. The third movement is neither a minuet nor a scherzo but a waltz. The finale is a dramatic sonata allegro.

I first heard the team of Robert Oberaigner and Michael Shöch a year ago in their version of Reger clarinet sonatas and other works (review) and was as taken with their playing this time as I was before. Oberaigner is Austrian and is currently principal clarinet in the Staatskapelle Dresden. He plays a German-style clarinet, the tone of which is slightly different from that of the French-style instruments common in the rest of the world, thanks to the cylindrical portion of its bore being longer. The keywork also is different. His tone is smooth and creamy, and this is the kind of instrument Brahms would have had in mind. His duet partner Shöch copes admirably with the complex writing Brahms throws at him and the two together have an excellent rapport. The cellist Norbert Anger also plays in the Staatskapelle Dresden as well as having a solo career, and he makes a good partner for the others. I found this performance of the trio really impressive.

MDG have a long track record in recording chamber music and the sound here is full and rich, with a good balance between the clarinet and the piano, and also with the cello in the trio. The disc is a SACD but I was listening in ordinary two channel stereo. The sleeve-note, in three languages, is very helpful.

There are many recordings of the two sonatas, and some of them also have the trio as a coupling. For this programme I have always liked the version by Michel Portal and Mikhaïl Rudy, with Boris Pergamenschikow in the trio, on EMI. That is, if you like, a more French orientated version than this one, which, with its German and Austrian credentials, would be a good reference version for all three works.

Stephen Barber



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