Clarinet Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121
Julian Bliss (clarinet), James Baillieu (piano)
Signum Classics SIGCD 671 60:02 mins
Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas were the result of the supposedly ‘retired’ master-composer’s encounter with Richard Mühlfeld, a player whose evidently wondrous musicianship also inspired the Clarinet Quintet and the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. The Sonatas alone don’t quite fill out a CD, so Julian Bliss also includes his own arrangement of the Four Serious Songs, originally written for low voice.
Each song sets a biblical text exploring the themes of suffering and resignation: Brahms knew that he had liver cancer, and his beloved Clara Schumann was dying after a major stroke. The last song finds consolation in faith and hope, but the other three are insistently dark, and the transfer of the vocal line to the clarinet seems to intensify this quality – partly due to the instrument’s wider dynamic range compared to the human voice, which in turn allows a judicious extra degree of force in James Baillieu’s superb accompanying.
Bliss delivers the two sonatas with virtuoso mastery, with a feeling for line in the slower passages that could hold its own with any singer; Baillieu similarly excels throughout, deploying a feather-light keyboard tone in the F minor Sonata’s Andante un poco adagio second movement that gives an almost pre-Debussyan atmosphere to the music’s spareness. A small reservation only is the rather close recorded balance, which picks up Bliss’s intakes of breath a little too often.