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Hyperion Records

CDH55158 - Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas
(Originally issued on CDA66202)

Recording details: September 1984
St Barnabas's Church, North Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: February 2004
Total duration: 42 minutes 26 seconds

'Really, I have only two words to say about this disc—'Buy it!' ' (BBC Record Review)

Clarinet Sonatas
Dame Thea King (clarinet), Clifford Benson (piano) Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service; also available on CDS44331/42  
Vivace  [5'02]
Allegro amabile  [8'05]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Brahms’s two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op 120, composed in 1894, were followed only by the four Serious Songs and a set of organ chorale preludes (some of which may have been written at earlier times). His farewell to chamber music was also his farewell gift to the clarinet. The two works recorded here were preceded by the Clarinet Trio in A minor (Op 114) and the great Clarinet Quintet in B minor (Op 115), and all four masterpieces were inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra.

Brahms’s orchestral music had always clearly displayed a sympathy for the clarinet, and it is perhaps not surprising that he should in the end have turned to it rather than to any other woodwind instrument. That might have been the case even without Mühlfeld’s influence, and there can be no doubt that H C Colles was right in saying of the Quintet: ‘Had Brahms never heard of the great clarinettist that music must have been expressed somehow.’

The two sonatas are not on the same scale as the Quintet, but match the fine and insufficiently appreciated Trio in scope. They are strongly contrasted in key and mood, and each sonata internally varies its character somewhat unexpectedly. The broad and firmly outlined first movement of the F minor, serious but not tragic, is followed by two gently flowing middle movements that suggest no deep problems of any kind; these make way for a vigorously cheerful finale. As if in response to this mood, the first movement of the E flat sonata is amiable and unemphatic, only to be succeeded by one of Brahms’s more passionate scherzos. There are only three movements, and the last is a set of variations on a quietly floating theme, becoming more energetic towards the end.

Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op 120 No 1
The concentration of thought is clear at the outset in the avoidance of repetition; the clarinet continues rather than echoes or counterstates the theme first given out by the piano, and the whole movement proceeds in this way with dignified, serious energy. Nothing is wasted, and the first movement development is a model of perfectly graded but surprisingly swift growth. The moment of reprise is unobtrusive, and the whole recapitulation is condensed to make way for a gentler, more expansive coda, Sostenuto ed espressivo.

Although the slow second movement in A flat gives the impression of dreamy ease, it is also economical, and its return to the main theme through a foreign key characteristically saves space as it suggests leisure (one thinks of the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No 2). With the lyrical Allegretto grazioso we stay in A flat, and the F minor of the trio, with its syncopated accompaniment, is the last extended use of the tonic minor in the whole work.

The exuberant finale, Vivace, is in F major and its second subject looks like being one of those gloriously expansive Brahmsian themes in swinging triplets. But with the economy typical of this work, Brahms does not allow it to spread and it is soon invaded by terser action. At the end we feel that, although the sonata has been officially in F minor (Beethoven’s ‘barbarous’ key), it has been composed more with pleasure than pain.

Clarinet Sonata in E flat major Op 120 No 2
This music is less overtly determined than its companion, but no less terse in fact. The main theme stretches itself comfortably and does not eschew repetition like the one in the F minor sonata; it is also more persistent in the movement as a whole, especially its opening phrase. The development uses quick arpeggiated triplets that may remind the ear of Beethoven’s first Rasumovsky Quartet or of his Triple Concerto (the first movement in each) – Brahms was in any case so fond of this sort of locomotion that it by now had become purely characteristic of himself.

The other two movements are markedly contrasted with each other. The scherzo, Allegro appassionato, is in E flat minor and begins in a flowing vein that at first seems to follow easily what has gone before – but it becomes intense and full of measured energy, and there is a trio in B major, one of Brahms’s most splendid melodies. In the third movement, Andante con moto, he relaxes into five variations and coda on a beautiful theme that shows no inclination to activity until a stormy variation interrupts in E flat minor. But the sun soon comes out again, and the sonata ends happily, as it began.

Robert Simpson © 1986

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