Just as with Mozart before him, it was only in his final years that Brahms wrote music to showcase the clarinet; a trio, a quintet, and the two Opus 120 sonatas for clarinet and piano featured on this disc, with which he bade a final farewell to chamber music. He was a man in his 60s, keenly aware of the passing of youth and impending mortality (just three years away), of taciturn nature, whose entire adult life had been spent in a painfully unrequited love affair with the widow of his friend, Robert Schumann. All of these conflicting emotions – anger, regret, tenderness and resignation – boil over in these two wonderful sonatas. Also featured are transcriptions by Paul Dean of three Brahms songs, composed around 1870 (which, not untypically, give vent to his feelings for Clara Schumann), plus Robert Schumann’s “Three Fantasy Pieces” Op73 from 1851. Less dark, perhaps more conventionally ‘Romantic’ than the Brahms sonatas, it is certainly not impossible to imagine Brahms having composed them at an earlier time in his life.
I have enjoyed Martin Fröst’s recording of the two Brahms sonatas (BIS 1353) for some years, youthfully fast-paced and overtly virtuosic as it is. Paul Dean (brother of famous violist and composer Brett Dean, as I’m sure he’s sick of being reminded) and Stephen Emmerson, both pillars of the Australian musical establishment, have seen a few more summers between them and give a more measured performance of greater contrast and emotional depth. Should a clincher be needed, Melba’s sound quality is clearly superior, rich-toned and very natural sounding – I don’t know how they keep doing it, but they do!