A very personal review of a historically inspired Brahms recording

Listening to the new recording of Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Sonatas and Trio by Marie Ross, Petra Somlai, and Claire-Lise Démettre, I recalled a recent conversation with a friend who recounted a first date. The CD opens with the sonatas for the two instruments, clarinet and piano. From the first bars, I was transported into the intimate space created by the two. The piano issues an invitation, a gesture of welcome, and the clarinet launches into her story, sounding so vulnerable it made me blush; the tension between the two felt that palpable. As soon as the clarinet starts telling her story, she fears that she has revealed too much, and it is only with the piano’s support that she can continue speaking. The piano prods, asks clarifying questions, restates what she’s heard, exclaims in surprise, and generally acts as a friend who is, herself, invested in the story. The lived experiences—the subject of the conversation—take shape as a result of the conversation. The dialogue between the two instruments shapes the story; the piano’s strong backing and insistence on drawing out the clarinet’s sound embolden the clarinet, allow it to express itself with greater confidence and wider range of emotion. The vulnerability is still there, but as the movements progress, reflection on the past experiences gives way to inhabiting the present moment, the space that the clarinet is sharing with the piano.

The relationship between past experiences and the present moment is clearly a subject of investigation for the musicians who are performing on historical instruments. All three pieces are a part of standard repertoire, and multitudes of versions of this music is available online. This recording stands out as much for its philosophical underpinnings as for the quality of its execution. In a mini-series of podcasts that accompany the recording, clarinetist Marie Ross suggests that music performance has undergone tremendous change in the XXth century as a result of recording technology itself—and the music we’re used to hearing has become standardized, composers’ scores treated in much more prescriptive terms than they had been meant to. The return to historical instruments implies rediscovering the way these instruments had been played in the past by the musicians who first performed this music.

Brahms wrote these pieces for Richard Mühlfeld, a clarinetist with whom he had developed a profound friendship at the end of his life. He and Mühlfeld premiered these pieces together in Vienna in 1895, and the trio was premiered a few years earlier in Berlin, with another friend, Robert Hausmann playing the cello. No recordings exist of these musicians, and it is only through listening to the recordings of their students and studying the scores, reviews, letters, biographies that musicians can attempt to reconstruct the sound of the era. Ross has carefully researched the differences, and two that she mentions in line notes have contributed to my listening experience. First, tempo elasticity: “It would have been standard to speed up with the crescendo and slow down with the diminuendo, and both together (the ‘hairpin’) was especially meaningful,” Ross writes. This notion of elasticity has helped to smooth over the contrasts between the quiet and the exuberant passages in the music, to connect them in a way that feels organic. The climaxes, when they come, feel as a natural peak of the emotional development that precedes them, and instead of abrupt and sudden endings, we are allowed moments of closure. The drama of these moments resonates all the deeper because of the space it’s given to develop.
The second difference that Ross brings to our attention is the idea of dislocation: “not playing together for expressive purposes.” Strict simultaneity is another value that has entered classical music with the advent of the recording industry, and that’s simply not the Brahms expected his music to sound. “The instruments sometimes purposely play before or after each other, to heighten the expression and meaning.” As pianists, who were trained to separate their left and the right hands, chamber ensembles expected this of musicians playing together. It is uncommon today to hear three instruments that are not perfectly in sync with one another, and the effect is significant. Listening to the music, I heard three individual voices, each with their own distinct personalities and ideas, communicating to one another. To me, it was a rare chance to hear, on a recording, music as a conversation between the musicians and their instruments, between the musicians and the composer, and between the musicians themselves. Both the moments of dislocation and of unison become wonderfully meaningful. The complexity of this music is as layered with meaning as it is with joy and deep connection.

In the CD notes, Ross notes with pride that the instruments we hear on this recording are original instruments, not modern copies of period pieces. A lot of thought went into the selection and modification of the instruments for the recording. New York Steinway piano was the instrument that Brahms always requested on his concert tours, and Petra Somlai uses 1875 model of it. On the accompanying podcast series, Ross talks about the clarinets she chose, and cellist Claire-Lise Démettre explains how she modified her 1929 instrument for this recording. An interesting effect is created when XXIst century musicians play on XIXth and early XXth century instruments. The instruments themselves have wizened, have acquired age marks. Many of the imperfections that the modern musicians try to smooth over become features of the historic performance. The difference, to my ear, was most readily apparent in the sound of the cello. Démettre used gut strings on her cello, instead of the modern steel, giving her instrument an incomparable deep, rich voice. The clarinet, too, sounded noticeably different from its modern cousins: as a note lingers, its shading changes ever so slightly, as though giving shape to the texture of the instrument’s wood. The expressiveness of this music felt effortless, undoubtedly due to the experience and the capability of the musicians.

It is also clear that in the process of studying their instruments, the musicians have acquired an uncommon depth of knowledge and expertise about the composer and his era. All three pieces included in this recording are a product of Brahms’s meeting with Mühlfeld. What did the friendship mean to these men? The photographs of the two musicians I find online show two stout and wildly bearded men with high foreheads and intense gazes, Mühlfeld holding his instrument not unlike one would hold a cigar. Yet the Internet is also full of wonder about the feminine nicknames Brahms had for Mühlfeld: “Fräulein Klarinette,” “Meine Prima donna,” “The nightingale of the orchestra.” He clearly was of the highest opinion of Mühlfeld’s skill, writing to Clara Schumann, “Nobody can blow the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mühlfeld,” but the nicknames go beyond professional admiration in attesting a friendship.

Brahms’s relationship with Mühlfeld cannot be reproduced, but clearly, in studying the history of performance of the pieces, the musicians have given it a lot of thought. They make educated guesses not only about the technical composition of the pieces, but also about the underlying emotions that the music gives shapes to. The contemporary performance becomes a conversation about what the music could’ve meant for Brahms and his close friends, as well as a conversation about the musicians’ own experiences with the music in the present moment. This gives each note, each transition extra weight of meaning, and for the listener, it’s an invitation to enter the world of the music and to feel it and to think about it alongside the musicians.

I found all three pieces powerful and thought-provoking, and the addition of the cello in the third piece on the CD—the trio—particularly satisfying. The cello on the trio sounds darker and somehow more world-weary to the questioning, fanciful clarinet, and the firm, self-confident piano. In the movements of the trio, it is as though they go through telling each other of a lifetime’s worth of experiences, and as they trade of bits of melody, I felt like this was the most ultimately rewarding conversation, in which each participant takes time to reflect what they’ve heard before introducing a variation or a different thread of thought. I was captivated by every idea, by every emotion of this music, and felt nurtured by it and a little better prepared to listen to the pauses of my quiet friend.


This CD is available for purchase on Amazon.

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