Wednesday 16 May 2012

The genius of Brahms with Emma Johnson

Brahms is surely recognised as one of the great composers of all time so why is it that Sir Thomas Beecham is alleged to have referred to him as ‘…not that old bore.’

Philip Hale of the Boston Herald is once said to have proposed that there should be an inscription over the doors of Boston Symphony Hall reading ‘Exit in case of Brahms.’

The Wagner and Brahms factions in his own day were more the product of such people as Eduard Hanslick, the music critic of the Neue Freie Presse, who, whilst ardently supporting Brahms, vehemently disliked the music of Wagner. This factionalisation didn’t necessarily do Brahms any favours.

Brahms conformed to the classical standards of form and structure which his enemies said made him conservative and boring.

It’s true that the symphonies and perhaps the German Requiem can be performed in a way that can make them sound dull. But Brahms was an emotional man whose music, in the right hands, is just as emotional as any other. This is particularly so in the wonderful late pieces, the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120.

Brahms’ last four chamber works featured the clarinet. The Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114, the Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and String Quartet Op.115 and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120.

We owe the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld, a debt of gratitude for these pieces for, though Brahms was fond of the clarinet, it was the polish and sensitivity of Mühlfeld’s playing that inspired these works.

Visiting Meiningen in 1891 to hear the orchestra under its new conductor, Fritz Steinbach, he first heard Mühlfeld’s playing. Once the sonatas had been published Brahms presented his autograph manuscripts to Mühlfeld with the dedication ‘To Richard Mühlfeld, the master of his beautiful instrument, in sincerely grateful remembrance.’

So, coming to a new recording from Nimbus Alliance of Emma Johnson and John Lenehan, I was looking forward to hearing how they would perform these works.

NI 6153

I was not disappointed, as I must say straight away, that these performances have everything you could wish for, with playing of supreme mastery, at turns sensitive and poetic, following every nuance and dynamic. There is a very distinctive sound to Emma Johnson’s playing that is immediately beguiling.

The first movement, Allegro appassionato, of the first Clarinet Sonata in F minor provides some fiery playing, never strident, the melodic flow seamlessly played. In the Andante un poco Adagio there are the most touchingly quiet and gentle passages played exquisitely. It is Emma Johnson’s ability to bring out so many different shades of tone that is astounding.

I defy anyone not to be totally beguiled by the playing of the third movement with its lively ländler style Allegretto grazioso before the rousing rondo finale.

In contrast to the first Clarinet Sonata, the second Clarinet sonata in E flat has a softer quality to the opening, a gently undulating melody in which Emma Johnson brings a warmth and beauty and, at times, passion.

In the Allegro appassionato-Sostenuto again there are wonderfully controlled dynamics following every ebb and flow of the music. Slowly building from a thoughtful andante, the final allegro, in variation form, receives some spectacularly virtuoso playing.

This generously filled disc also has a wonderful performance of Mendelssohn’s early Clarinet Sonata in E flat written in 1824 when the composer was just 15 years of age. It was the following year that he would write his marvellous E-flat major   Octet but this sonata has much of the same confidence of that work.

The gentle opening soon turns to a light and vibrant theme with some intricate music superbly played by both Emma Johnson and John Lenehan. The second movement opens with the clarinet alone before being joined by the piano with some beautiful and sensitive playing from John Lenehan before a finale that dashes along with playing of enormous bravura.

Schuman’s Phantasiestucke for clarinet and piano Op.73 completes this terrific disc with a wonderful performance that brings out the melodic beauty of this attractive piece.

Emma Johnson and John Lenehan are perfectly attuned to each other’s playing, with John Lenehan providing an equally memorable contribution to these performances.

The recording is finely detailed and there are excellent notes from Emma Johnson.

If you already have a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas then this new issue will make you fall in love with them all over again. If you haven’t a recording then this is the one to get.

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