Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas (Harmonia mundi)
Lorenzo Coppola, Andreas Staier HMC 902187
The playing of clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld inspired the mellow fruitfulness of Brahms’ late works, yielding four masterpieces. Coaxed out of retirement, Brahms composed the Clarinet Quintet, the Clarinet Trio and a pair of sonatas that are among the instrument’s crown jewels. Recordings of the sonatas on period instruments have been few and far between – Alan Hacker on Amon Ra – but Lorenzo Coppola now sets a new benchmark.
Mühlfeld played a boxwood clarinet developed by virtuoso Carl Baermann and instrument maker Georg Ottensteiner, which put sweetness of sound above sheer volume. These two designed a new system of keys to improve the clarinet’s sonority, especially across its weaker middle range notes. Coppola plays a Schwenk & Seggelke copy of Mühlfeld’s Baermann/Ottensteiner instrument and the results are richly satisfying. Where Alan Hacker suffers intonation problems that can make listening a trial (and is joined by a clangourous pub fortepiano), Coppola has a lovely velvety sound. The Andante un poco Adagio second movement of the F minor Sonata has a gossamer touch, while the opening of the E flat major Sonata portrays a wistful mood, but never overly indulgent or sentimental.
Coppola is partnered by fortepianist extraordinaire Andreas Staier, playing an 1875 Steinway, one of Brahms’ favourite models. It’s all too easy for the piano to swamp the clarinet in a deluge of thick chords, but the balance here is a revelation. Coppola is able to hold his own without forcing his sound. The Steinway has a bell-like upper register and bass notes that never overwhelm. Staier brings great clarity to Brahms’ piano writing, both in the Sonatas and in the Op.118 Klavierstücke, where the Ballade thrills and the Romanze flows beautifully, with lightness of tone and tightly controlled trills. More solo Brahms from Staier would be most welcome!
There are many moments to treasure in the playing. Coppola and Staier find a rhapsodic feel for the opening of the F minor, with beautiful articulation in the Sostenuto close. There is a lively feel of movement in the finale and mercurial interplay in its quasi-fugue. Coppola finds a tender dolce in the Tranquillo section of the E flat sonata’s first movement, Staier spreading the broken chords to perfection. The second movement Appassionato, ma non troppo Allegro is taken as a proper Hungarian Dance, with no slowing down (rightly) for the Sostenuto section. Once or twice, I felt Coppola wasn’t enjoying the chocolate chalumeau register writing quite as much as he should, but that’s a minor cavil.
I much prefer these accounts to other period performances. They also better other available versions from the same Harmonia mundi label: marginally, in the case of sturdy performances from Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu; significantly in the case of a vibrato-laden Michel Portal. “Play it however you like, but play it beautifully,” was Brahms’ advice. There can be few more rewarding accounts of these rich autumn fruits than those on this disc to cherish.