Brahms’s two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op 120, composed in 1894, were followed only by the four Serious Songs and a set of organ chorale preludes (some of which may have been written at earlier times). His farewell to chamber music was also his farewell gift to the clarinet. The two works recorded here were preceded by the Clarinet Trio in A minor (Op 114) and the great Clarinet Quintet in B minor (Op 115), and all four masterpieces were inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra.
In 1984 Steven Isserlis made excellent recordings for Hyperion of the Brahms sonatas with Peter Evans; this time he's added some substantial extra items – the two Suk pieces, wonderfully played, are particularly welcome. The new recording is fuller in sound and more realistic; Stephen Hough's commanding playing of Brahms's 'big' piano parts could, one feels, overpower the cello but, thanks to his sensitivity, this never happens.
Is this what Gallic Brahms sounds like? Well, violinist Renaud Capuçon is French-born and French-trained, and pianist Nicholas Angelich, while America-born, is French-trained, but does this make them French musicians rather than musicians who are French? Possibly: Capuçon has the lean, lyrical tone that has been the specialty of French violinists since Louis Capet and Angelich has the lush, lucid tone that has been the specialty of French pianists since Walter Gieseking.
This is Volume 1 in a new series of British Clarinet Sonatas, featuring the exclusive Chandos artist Michael Collins in works by Bax, Bliss, Howells, Ireland, and Stanford. He is accompanied by the pianist Michael McHale. Their ‘Lyrical Clarinet’ disc received much praise, among others from BBC Music which noted: ‘It’s hard to imagine this programme better played than it is here by Collins and McHale… technically impeccable.’
Among the most cherished of all chamber works, the Quintet was written after Brahms visited the ducal court of Meiningen and heard Richard Mühlfeld, whom he considered one of the greatest woodwind players he had ever heard. It is a heartfelt work, and seems to sum up Brahms's life, with a mood of resignation-without-bitterness prevailing. This is one of Brahms's finest achievements.