Thursday, July 5, 2012

Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In 1890, the great Johannes Brahms resolved to give up composing. I'm not quite certain why though I suspect it was related to his more conservative musical style and the way music was changing around him.

Luckily for us clarinetists, Brahms happened to hear Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra. Upon hearing his sound quality and his musicianship, Brahms was moved to take pen to paper yet again and ultimately wrote four works for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two fantastic Clarinet Sonatas (which Brahms himself eventually rewrote for the viola).

Not only did we clarinetists end up with two great Sonatas by Brahms, but this opened the door for other composers to write Sonatas for the instrument and so we ended up with many great works.

The work was written in 1894 (as was the other Sonata). It is a four-movement work following the usual pattern one would see in String Quartets or Symphonies (fast first movement, slow and lyrical second movement, a dance-like third movement in 3, and a fast-paced final movement). Unlike the usual works written for clarinet at this time, the piano here is a true equal to the clarinet. In most works written around Brahms's time the clarinet was the lead and the piano fell into an accompanimental role. From talking to accompanists back when I was in college (and played this work), this was one of the most difficult piano "accompaniments." Brahms definitely didn't skimp on the piano part. And all of his triplets against duplets make the work difficult (but fun!) to put together.

I tried to find a recording on youtube that I really really liked, but struggled. So here's the best of the lot. I'm not a huge fan of the clarinetist's tone. It seems a little too bright and strident to me. I am, naturally, very very picky about which clarinetists I enjoy listening to! This recording is done by Johathan Cohler, clarinet and Judith Gordon, piano.

I. Allegro appassionato
II. Andante un poco Adagio
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Vivace

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