Sometimes the right performer can inspire a composer to write something wonderful, even a composer who thinks his composing days are behind him. For Johannes Brahms, in the last few years of his life, that performer was clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms was so taken by Mühlfeld's playing that he spent time listening to him practice and exploring how the instrument sounded in his hands. What more could a performer ask than to have not one but two of Brahms's finest sonatas composed for him, those of op. 120 (and that after even better tributes in the clarinet trio and quintet, opp. 114 and 115). The sonatas are not heard in performance all that often: we have reviewed only no. 2 in concert, once with clarinet (by student players in Siena this summer) and once when stolen by a violist (Lawrence Dutton in 2005).
Brahms, Clarinet Sonatas, op. 120,
J. Manasse, J. Nakamatsu
(released January 8, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907430
James R. Oestreich (New York Times)
Anna Picard (The Independent)
Gary Lemco (Audophile Audition)
On disc, however, they are well represented and not only on clarinet, but with all kinds of instruments (viola, flute, bassoon). For all of this recording's admirable qualities, it is difficult to call it, with only the two sonatas at a mere 44:05, more desirable than several other recordings that combine it with the clarinet trio (which at about 24' could easily fit on a single disc) or with the trio and the quintet on two discs. However, the musical performance here is excellent, by the pairing of Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu, who are among other things the co-directors of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. Manasse and Nakamatsu played together at the National Gallery last October (they played op. 120, no. 1), unfortunately while I was reviewing Murray Perahia.
What appeals about this rendition is its suavely restrained character, with Manasse reveling in a dark honeyed tone and engaging a harsher tone only in a few rare instances. Nakamatsu likewise reins in the Steinway Model D, playing the dark registers of the Brahms score with impressive transparency. There is power, to be sure, where it is needed, as in the forceful last movement of no. 1, but the marvelous final-movement variations of no. 2 are largely played under the vest. This generally meets with my understanding of much of Brahms's music, which sounds tortured and emotional and even overwrought, but more in an interior than exterior way, only occasionally finding expression other than thoughts (witness their introspective first and second movements of no. 1). Nakamatsu and Manasse strike an excellent balance, trading melodies and accompanying figures, and the warm, resonant sound has been captured beautifully.
Brahms (center) and Mühlfeld (right), with Eduard Hanslick (left)