Brahms • Beethoven

COMPOSERS: Brahms/Beethoven
LABELS: ArtistLed
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Clarinet Trios; plus Bruch: Eight Pieces, Op. 83
PERFORMER: David Shifrin (clarinet), David Finckel (cello), Wu Han (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ArtistLed 11101-2

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The two masterpieces among these trios for clarinet, cello and piano make a contrasting pair. The Beethoven is a breezy early work, ending with a set of variations on a comic-opera tune (which he thought about replacing, though never did). The Brahms is part of his late harvest of music for clarinet. Closely wrought and beautiful in sonority, it prompted his lifelong friend Eusebius Mandyczewski to comment: ‘It is as though the instruments were in love with each other.’

On this recording they’re nicely complemented by four of the substantial, well varied set of Eight Pieces written in 1909 by Max Bruch. They were originally scored for clarinet, viola and piano, but there’s an alternative part for the cello, which is mostly allocated the viola’s singing melodies at the same pitch in its upper register.

David Finckel and Wu Han, the long-established duo who founded the ArtistLed label, are joined by clarinettist David Shifrin in performances which come close to ideal. Every phrase is cleanly executed and unanimously shaped, every colour combination carefully balanced; even the recording contributes, adding glowing resonance and giving isolated notes a pearl-like quality. Perhaps there are moments when flawlessness isn’t enough, and I find myself longing for a more human, risky expression of Beethoven’s youthful impetuosity and Brahms’s buried passion.

In the Brahms, Martin Fröst, Torleif Thedéen and Roland Pöntinen (on BIS with the Brahms clarinet sonatas) get more out of the music. But purchase this disc if you want to find out what chamber-music perfection sounds like.

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Anthony Burton