Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas, Op.120

LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Clarinet Sonatas, Op.120
PERFORMER: John Manasse (clarinet)
Jon Makamatsu (piano)
Brahms’s two late, wonderfully mellow Clarinet Sonatas are played by the American duo of John Manasse and Jon Makamatsu with impressive instrumental mastery and good rapport. But in the Second Sonata, in E flat (placed first, for no obvious reason), the opening Allegro Amabile is too ‘amiable’ and not ‘lively’ enough, almost grinding to a halt at the start of the development. The Sostenuto trio of the second movement is similarly ponderous, and not all the dynamicsc and expression marks are respected. The more dramatic F minor Sonata certainly fares much better. But both performances are dogged by a recorded balance which places Nakamatsu’s forceful piano playing in the foreground, at the expense of Manasse’s soft-grained Clarinet. There are several recommendable bargain versions of these Sonatas: Gervase de Peyer and Daniel Barenboim (EMI) strong if occasionally idiosyncratic, Thea King and Clifford Benson (Helios) forthright and utterly trustworthy, Kálmán Berkes and Jeno Jando (Naxos) an outstanding team. But the overall leaders remain Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen (BIS, reviewed in February 2006); they play with infinite finesse, great beauty of tone and telepathic understanding, and they’re exceptionally well-recorded (with a multi-channel layer). Value for money comes into it, too: on BIS you also get Brahms’s clarinet Trio; Harmonia Mundi offer, at a similar price, handsome presentation but only 44 minutes of music.