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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894) [25:34]
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 120, No. 2 (1894) [25:56]
Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114 (1891) [28:22]
Marie Ross (clarinet)
Petra Somlai (piano)
Claire-Lise Démettre (cello)
rec. 2018, Academiezaal, Sint-Truiden, Belgium

One of the selling-points for this recording is that it is performed on period instruments. Marie Ross plays clarinets by Oskar Oehler (1858-1936), a maker whose instruments were recommended by Brahms’ favourite clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. Petra Somlai plays a fabulous sounding 1875 New York Steinway, another type of instrument known to Brahms and indeed requested by him when performing in his later years. The point here being that there is plenty of authenticity in the sound but at the same time nothing hair-shirt at all about this recording, and there is certainly no compromise in expressive content or dynamic range when it comes to the two sonatas.

Marie Ross in her booklet note points not only towards the choice of instruments, but also to that time when these pieces were brand-new, and no performing tradition had been established and therefore ‘no right or wrong ways’ when playing them. The ‘right’ way in this case takes into consideration the style Brahms would have considered natural, but which have since become unfashionable. This most immediately apparent in the Trio, in which cellist Claire-Lise Démettre often uses a portamento or sliding between the notes, that can take a little getting used to now.

The two sonatas are beautifully performed here, using tempi that are slower than we’ve become used to hearing. There is plenty of vim and contrast in the music as a whole, and just as a random example the final Vivace of Op. 120 No. 1 is as lively and energetic as you could wish for. None of these movements drag in the slightest, and instead we’re drawn in by a more thoughtful and character-filled interpretations of these late Brahms works. The change in mood with that oh-so lyrical opening to Op. 120 No. 2 packs in so much in just the first minute that we’re kept on the edge of our seats wondering what will happen next, and this of course is the point of such a recording; giving us that freshly-minted feel of music that is new and full of surprises.

The Trio opens with the cello, and we’re instantly in world different to that of modern-instrument recordings. Claire-Lise Démettre is a member of the Sine Qua Non Quartet and among other credits is Principal and Solo Cellist with Ensemble Matheus, so we know we are in safe hands. Vibrato is absent, but there is a penetrating drama to the balance and blend of this ensemble’s dynamic that, once you’ve set aside any prejudices you might have to the cello sound, fascinates from beginning to end. Brahms wasn’t an opera composer, but this is an interpretation that brings out scenery and narrative in the music that you won’t have heard before, and to me is hardly ‘absolute music’ at all.

The clarinet sonatas and trio are a perfect programme together on one CD, and so this release does have some competition. Most of these are however not performed on period instruments. Of the modern instrument recordings I haven’t heard Robert Oberaigner’s MDG recording (review), but Arthur Campbell on the Audite label (review) is reasonably typical in tempi that undercut Marie Ross’s by some margin, particularly in some of the outer movements. I didn’t find Campbell particularly involving but his is a nicely produced recording, as is the preferable Karl-Heinz Steffens on the Tudor label (review). Of the modern instrument recordings Martin Fröst is impressive but steely on the BIS label (review), as is the gentler Karl Leister on Nimbus (review) but none of these is comparing like with like. It turns out there are relatively few period instrument recordings around, but Alan Hacker made the attempt on the Amon Ra label back in the 1980s. This recording sounds rather brittle due in part to the more fragile sounding piano, which has much less richness of sound and sustaining quality than that played by Petra Somlai.

Beyond the period instruments and everything else this is just a superbly played and very well recorded set of performances. If you want to know more about this recording and Marie Ross’s personal responses to this music I suggest you seek out her Fidelio podcast, which has a Brahms mini-series that takes a detailed and fascinating look at the music and these performances. If you love these fine works and are intrigued to hear something as close as we can get to how Brahms would have known them then you owe it to yourself to acquire this excellent recording.

Dominy Clements

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