Schiff/Widmann: Brahms Clarinet Sonatas (ECM New Series 2621)

András Schiff
Jörg Widmann
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas

András Schiff piano
Jörg Widmann clarinet
Recorded May 2018
Historischer Reistadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Cover photo: Jan Jedlička
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 2, 2020

In the opening gestures of the Sonata in E-flat major, op. 120/2 (1894), for clarinet and piano, it’s difficult not to feel the breath of life that moved its composer, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), to such rapture in the latter years of his life. As the second of two such sonatas and his final chamber work, it is a testimony not only to Richard Mühlfeld, the master clarinetist of his day whom Brahms called “the nightingale of the orchestra,” but also to the self-effacement with which Brahms struggled throughout his creative life. And so, when considering the enduring interpretations here by pianist András Schiff and clarinetist Jörg Widmann, one must understand that without a love for every note, the bars between them would erode. Thus, Widmann gives colorations to the breath at every turn, while Schiff understands the role of the piano in Brahms’s chamber works as more than an accompaniment, giving it the fullness of expression it requires. The second movement, a rousing Allegro appassionato, is quintessential Brahms for its controlled drama and balance of fine motor skills, all tied together with a rustic charm. The final movement works patience into the virtue of exuberance.

The Sonata in f minor, op. 120/1 (1894), is even more dynamic. After a gradual first movement, the second unravels like paint from a brush, finding favor in the final trails of each stroke. The restrained Allegretto that follows sets up a rousing Vivace, the ebullience of which dazzles the senses. Given its symphonic textures, it’s no wonder the piece lent itself so gloriously to Luciano Berio’s orchestral transcription in 1986.

Between these giants of clarinet literature are Widmann’s five Intermezzi (2010) for piano. As tributes to both Schiff (to whom it is dedicated) and Brahms, they show a modern heart in love with the blood of tradition pumping through it. The central intermezzo, at 12 minutes, digs deepest into the spirit of this emotional transference. Throughout, we encounter waking moments in an otherwise dreamlike mise-en-scène. Nevertheless, clarity abounds.

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