Weill Recital Hall
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Clarinet Trio
Stanley Drucker (clarinet)
Carter Brey (cello)
Leonid Hambro and Gerald Robbins (piano)
Johannes Brahms was extremely respectful of musical tradition and modest to a fault. After the completion of his Double Concerto, he decided never to compose a major work for orchestra again, since his four symphonies, four concerti and requiem totaled the same number as the nine symphonies of Beethoven and he didn’t dare try and eclipse the master (it was this same self-deprecation which prevented him from completing his first symphony until he was well into his forties). Not long after, he endeavored to retire from composition altogether, feeling that his time had passed. An autumnal mood, not of regret but rather summation, overcame him and his only significant work was all for solo piano, as if he were, like his idol Beethoven, now composing only for himself. Miraculously for posterity, however, his creative juices began to flow once again as soon as he heard the solo clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra, Richard Muehlfeld.
In the deeply rich sonority of the clarinet, Brahms found the perfect expression for his innermost feelings. Taking material in A Minor from that Fifth Symphony which could never be, he fashioned an introspective trio for clarinet, cello and piano that starts out in darkness but ends in a glorious bath of light. Inspired by Muehlfeld’s exceptional playing, as Mozart had previously been with that of Anton Stadler, Brahms also created two amazing sonatas for his “fraulein clarinet” and the mighty quintet, to which he referred in a letter to his assistant Eusebius von Mandyczewski, as “…a far greater piece of foolishness…”, into the bargain. As a body of work, these clarinet pieces stand with any in the chamber literature, even including Beethoven’s late string quartets.
As an interpreter of these final thoughts, Stanley Drucker is uniquely qualified. Not only is his virtuosity prodigious and his soft tone and melting lyricism so right for these essays, but he is now into his fifty-fourth season (that’s correct: 54!) with the New York Philharmonic. If ever there were a clarinetist who knew something about looking back upon a prolific career, this is he. His interpretation of the sonatas was notable for its exquisitely breathy tone and devoted attention to details of phrasing. The third movement of the F Minor was especially impressive for its subtle shadings of dynamics and keen differentiation between staccato and legato. The E Flat Major was a wonderful reflection of an aged observer recalling the joys and carefree qualities of youth, the reading warm in its vivacity and infectious in its bounciness.
The best performance of the evening was the trio, a fine combination of well-executed sonorities. Recently I heard a capable presentation of the version for viola, cello and piano, but this original timbral blend easily proved to be the superior. Mr. Drucker combined fluidly with his fellow first chair Philharmonic brother Carter Brey, whose rich tone was enhanced by a steady vibrato, and more than competent pianist Gerald Robbins, who provided a solid and grounded background for the proceedings (the same could not be said of Mr. Hambro in the sonatas). Particularly pleasing was the woody coupling of cello and clarinet, recalling the wind instruments of Brahms’ day that were still made of sylvan material (hence the name woodwind). Mr. Drucker somehow takes his modern rubber clarinet and reminds of his distant predecessor at the Phil, Simeon Bellison, who still played on an old wooden Oehler in the 1920’s. This softer and somewhat hollow sound is just perfect for these poetic pieces and Drucker makes the most of its expressive qualities. Some of his individual utterances are revelatory; all are beautifully interesting. The three fashioned an extraordinarily graceful and sophisticated end to a deeply rewarding performance. Honoring Brahms beyond measure, this was the most gentle of good nights.
Frederick L. Kirshnit