Brahms

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Clarinet Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118
PERFORMER: Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Andreas Staier (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902187

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Johannes Brahms’s late chamber music is now so familiar and central to the repertoire that it is easy to forget how elliptical, recherché and difficult to follow many of its early listeners found it. This latest recording sounds like an attempt to recapture some of that initial strangeness. Clarinettist Lorenzo Coppola plays a modern copy of a Bärmann Ottensteiner instrument – the already somewhat outmoded make favoured by Richard Mühlfeld, the player who originally inspired these sonatas. Brahms himself admired the tone of early Steinway pianos and Andreas Staier duly plays an 1875 American model – a clear-toned, well-balanced instrument mercifully free from the booming bass sound of modern models that can make Brahms’s piano writing sound so bottom-heavy. The two instruments blend so well that clarinet phrases can sometimes seem to emerge from the piano timbre and dissolve back into it again.

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In an interesting note, Coppola reminds us that Mühlfeld was praised by Joachim for his ‘art of declamation’ and that Brahms’s instrumental writing is full of short slurs, suggesting a kind of varied, speech-like mode of continuity rather than the smooth, even-toned ‘autumnal’ flow of many modern performances. The restless changefulness in colour and mood that these players find, especially in the F minor Sonata, certainly invites us to listen afresh. And while Staier may be more associated with the harpsichord and fortepiano repertoire, his searching account of the Op. 118 pieces culminates in a reading of the wistful final Intermezzo of the most mysterious intensity. Bayan Northcott