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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, Op.120 No.2 (1895) [21:34]
Four Lieder from Op.105 (1886-1888) [10:03]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor, Op.120 No.1 (1895) [22:25]
Minnelied op.71 no 5 (1877) [1:56]
Ron Selka (clarinet)
Aviram Reichert (piano)
rec. 2020, Clairmont Hall, Tel Aviv University, Israel

These two longstanding performers are shown looking happy and at ease with each other on the booklet cover of this mellow and honeyed recital of late Brahms. Ron Selka, Principal Clarinettist with the Israel Philharmonic and pianist Aviram Reichert, Van Cliburn medallist, currently Professor of Piano and Co-Chair at the College of Music at Seoul National University, have collaborated for more than thirty years. What is described as “A match made by their teachers”, Selka and Reichert, who started in high school with a successful audition performance for the IDF Outstanding Musician program, have performed numerous programmes in duo recitals in Israel, the United States and South Korea, as well as chamber music concerts with many prominent musicians. This album is a “milestone in a long musical journey traversed together”. Having enjoyed the CD, I’d go along with the publicity.

In his review of the two sonatas performed by Shirley Brill (clarinet) and Jonathan Aner (piano) on Hänssler Classic, Michael Cookson refers to what is now commonly referred to as Brahms’ Indian summer of creativity towards the end of his career. Brahms composed both the clarinet trio and the clarinet quintet in 1891. Three years later in 1894, there followed a pair of clarinet sonatas written especially for Richard Mühlfeld, a virtuoso clarinettist and principal of the Meiningen Orchestra, whose playing had been an inspiration to the aging composer. Brahms also transcribed these two scores for viola and piano and the versions are virtually identical. These two works were Brahms’ permanent farewell to chamber music. I have quite a few recordings in both permutations although I just prefer the clarinet whose throaty, reedy sound seems to convey the “Red Hedgehog”, an appropriate nickname for the somewhat prickly aging composer, it was also the name of a favourite restaurant. Last year I reviewed an excellent CD of the viola arrangement in the series on B Records, featuring Éric Le Sage (piano) who, with Lise Berthaud (viola), were as fine proponents of the rearrangement as Selka and Reichart are of the original. In his review of Brill and Aner, Michael Cookson was critical of the sound. No such obstacle here; the two performers are beautifully captured and seem very tangible on, my admittedly, high end B&O system. The CD also sounded great in the car.

The detailed notes by Yoel Greenberg give clear context for these late flowerings of Brahms’ genius. I’m unsure why the Second Sonata comes first but it works. Greenberg describes the Sonata as more mellow but it still seems to me to have all Brahms’ usual intensity. Indeed, one can easily imagine the first movement orchestrated as Schoenberg did successfully with the First Piano Quartet and Rubbra with the “Handel Variations”. As an example of the accomplishments of these two musicians, I’d suggest the third and final movement, which flows with joy at times amidst the recognition that Brahms’ life was reaching its end.

The days of CD means that two works, just over 20 minutes each, ideal for LP, are insufficient. The two Sonatas are separated by Four Lieder Op.105 and they work sublimely well. I was particularly taken with the final one Auf dem Kirchofe (In the churchyard) with its quotes from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This song has been sung by such greats as Hans Hotter.

The programming of this disc is very apt with the First Sonata being very song-like. I have ready to review soon, the recording by Julian Bliss (clarinet) and James Baillieu (piano) on
Signum Classics. That will be the appropriate time for comparison with the many distinguished versions, from Reginald Kell to the present. As an interim comment, I enjoyed Selka and Reichert very much in this work and the last movement gave me quite a lift. Minnelied op.71 no 5 from 1877 ends the disc, with, as the notes say, an air of the optimism of love in springtime. It seems an apt conclusion. The finest work for clarinet by Brahms is his Quintet, arguably one of the greatest chamber compositions, but these works, as performed here, evince fine production and reproduction.

It’s been a sheer pleasure to hear this disc and I hope that all lovers of fine chamber music will give it a listen. If this, as I suspect, is thus duo’s first recording then what a first class debut. Despite the risk of cliché this disc is commended with all enthusiasm … more please.
David R Dunsmore

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