“Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas, Five Lieder”
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonata in E-Flat major, opus 120, n° 2 – Four Lieder from opus 105 – Clarinet Sonata in F Minor, opus 120, n° 1 – Minnelied, opus 71, n° 5
Ron Selka (clarinet), Aviram Reichert (piano)
Recording: Clairmont Hall, Tel Aviv University, Israel (February 2020) – 56’05
TYXart Records # TXA20152 – Booklet in English, German and French
The woodsy sound of the solo clarinet, its voice so similar in timbre to the cardinal’s morning call, is showcased in a new album of two sonatas and five songs by Johannes Brahms. The album features Ron Selka, Principal Clarinetist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Aviram Reichert, a Van Cliburn medalist, touring pianist, and currently Professor of Piano and Co-Chair at the College of Music at Seoul National University.
The Brahms Sonatas, opus 120, n° 1 in F minor and n° 2 in E-Flat major, are doubly familiar to concert goers as they were later transcribed for viola and piano by Brahms. Less familiar are five Lieder arranged for clarinet and piano, transformed into glistening individual gems for this combination of instruments.
The album opens with the second sonata, and that is an appropriate choice, for the work’s assertive but cheerful E-Flat major presence is an invitation to embrace Brahms’ mature musical style with enthusiasm and an open heart. From the first movement, Selka provides a captivating lyricism that only the clarinet can convey. The sweet tonality, the soaring and retreating waves of sound remind one of the instrument’s ancient origins in Mediterranean marshes where, perhaps, the wind itself was the first musician.
But this is Brahms, so the clarinet is not the only star of this production. From the opening notes, Reichert provides a robust partnership with a strong bass line and much more than mere support to the featured instrument. [It wasn’t very long into this movement before I started thinking how great it would be to hear this pianist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto n° 1 in D minor, but that’s a wish for another time.]
It is true, though, that this Sonata legitimately recalls other selections in the same genre, such as Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin. The same freshness pervades the Brahms, as clarinet and piano have a lively conversation in which both voices may speak together without the slightest shade of cacophony. Selka enters into the second movement with a sense of abandon and freedom I’d like to hear more often in performances of works by this master. Reichert provides a sturdy ostinato as the clarinet spins golden melodies leading to the movement’s soft and tender conclusion. The third and final movement leads to a lightly syncopated section and a series of five variations, sometimes playful, that conclude the work.
Four of the opus 105 songs for low voice are featured in the next tracks. While these short Lieder are presented as songs without words, they still convey the meanings of the poetry that inspired them, mostly verses lamenting lost love. In the second song, “Immer Leiser” (“Ever more silent”), the clarinet takes on a touching poignancy. “Ever more silent grows my sleep. My grief hangs like a veil, trembling over me.” (Hermann Lingg)
Perhaps the most affecting song of this set is the fourth, “Auf dem Kirchhofe” (“In the Churchyard”), in which the romantic poet (Baron Detlev von Liliencron) stands in the rain before a forgotten grave. The coffins slumber, and here Brahms interjects a phrase from the chorale, “Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (“I will stand by thee here”) from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the piano briefly emulating the toll of church bells.
The album continues in a pleasantly mournful mood with the Clarinet Sonata n° 1 in F minor in four movements. While the second sonata is performed with appropriate gusto, I felt the first could have used more passion (it is marked appassionato, after all), especially in the opening movement. It was the minor mode of a thoughtful philosopher rather than an ardent lover, but this is probably truer to Brahms’ own reality at the end of his life when he composed the sonatas. Once the second theme is introduced, however, there is some of the sweetness and poignancy of the Immer leiser.
Selka’s resonant tone and the nimble dexterity of his fingers bring a heavenly sheen to the second movement, with its peculiar downward leaps about 2-1/2 minutes into the movement (E flat down to A flat, high E flat down to low D flat, E double flat down to G flat). The clarinet is begging to be allowed to squeak, but Selka rebuffs it gently with a smooth melodious flow. Following the woodwind’s silky song and the piano’s contrasting patter in the third movement, the sonata ends on a positive note in movement four.
The album concludes with a charming and visionary fifth song, this one from Minnelied, opus 71: “Trusted, dear lady, don’t ever leave me. Let my heart, like this meadow, blossom in bliss!” (Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty). The words may not be spoken by this exquisite clarinet and piano duo, but the sentiment has never been more clearly articulated.