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BRAHMS: Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1; Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major; ROZSA: Sonatina for Solo Clarinet; Sonata for Solo Clarinet – Jean Johnson, clar./ Steven Osborne, p. – Avie

BRAHMS: Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1; Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2; ROZSA: Sonatina for Solo Clarinet, Op. 27; Sonata for Solo Clarinet, Op. 41 – Jean Johnson, clarinet/ Steven Osborne, p. – Avie AV2311, 67:51 (6/23/14) [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Jean Johnson approaches the two 1893 Clarinet Sonatas of Johannes Brahms (rec. 8-10 December 2013) with many of the same qualities that mark the inscriptions by British clarinet virtuoso Reginald Kell half a century ago, with personal intensity buttressed by selective use of vibrato. Collaborating with her virtuoso-pianist husband, Steven Osborne, Johnson easily communicates the late-autumn, intimate sensibility that suffuses these works composed after the composer’s “retirement,” when his creative energies found resurrection through the inspiration of Meningen clarinetist Richard Muehlfeld.

Ivor Keys characterized the F Minor Sonata – despite its opening Allegro appassionato – as “smoldering rather than explosive.” The construction of the first movement looks like a mirror-image of the E Minor Symphony, made of ascending and descending thirds, music in darkly severe contours, the inner tragedies restrained. Johnson takes full advantage to display her lush chalumeau register, what Brahms called Fraulein Klarinette. Her chastity and implied sensuality comes forth even more strongly in the ensuing A-flat Major Andante, the music of which could have been penned by Schumann in its use repeated and parallel phrases. Osborne’s keyboard suggests a nocturne, as close to Debussy as it is to Schumann.

The Allegretto grazioso exemplifies the Brahms strategy to substitute a kind of German laendler for a traditional scherzo.  Also, in A-flat Major, it releases its real emotional energy in the F Minor “trio” section. Osborne could be performing a Brahms intermezzo at this juncture, and Johnson’s playing in this movement strikes me as particularly seamless as well as piquant. Typically, this otherwise somber work will mutate to F Major for an uplifted finale. Marked Vivace, the music jumps out in bell-like figures in repeated half notes, now exuberant where all had been staidly introspective. Rather Haydnesque in spirit and rondo-sonata structure, the music acquires a decided energy and confidence through the interchanges and blends from these two kindred performers.

The E-flat Sonata evokes even more outright effusiveness from our performers.  The first movement has much in common with the good-natured “Thun” Violin Sonata, Op. 100, with its Allegro amabile marking and warmth of feeling.  Osborne, however, impels the music forward with a big sound worthy of Beethoven as much as Brahms, perhaps in recognition of its occasional allusions to the former’s Op. 111. The legato playing from Johnson adds to the creamy effect she creates in long notes over the “motto” theme from Osborne.  The canons and stretti that mark the development have that ironic “just for fun” epithet Brahms applied when referring to these two sonatas. The middle movement does project real passion, Allegro appassionato, as required. The middle section, announced by Osborne, plays like a late keyboard sonata inspired by Beethoven and Schumann. The scale of the line and musical impact become quite gripping. Some mystical chords precede the da capo, taken even more rushed and dynamically pungent than Tempo I. The last movement – a seductive Theme and Variations in nostalgic colors – made its first impression upon me via Benny Goodman and Nadia Reisenberg. Once more, we receive from Johnson and Osborne the feeling that this interlude might have evolved from the E Minor Symphony’s solo moments in the course of the last movement passacaglia.  Genial, graceful, momentarily vehement, and always touched by a “note of eternal sadness,” to quote Arnold, the sonata follows an easy course from two masters of their respective instruments.

Hungarian Miklos Rosza (1907-1995) enjoys a dual identity, both as a successful Hollywood composer and a versatile classical artist whose violin and string pieces would find realization by the likes of Jascha Heifetz and Janos Starker. Rosza invokes the tarogato, the folk clarinet, in his Sonatina, created either in 1951 or 1957. In two movements, the piece begins with a melody reminiscent of Bartok that undergoes seven variations. The second movement, Vivo e giocoso, moves confidently with a sure sense of the mercurial, bravura elements in register shifts that Johnson finds congenial. The Op. 41 Sonata had its premiere in 1987 from Gervase de Peyer. Characteristically, the middle movement, Andante semplice, carries the most potent emotional impact. The outer movement present lively syncopations and modal harmonies that catch the ear despite their lack of depth. An entertaining complement to the Brahms sonatas, these solo works might evoke a pert response, to pun on a Rosza film score, that great clarinetists don’t wear plaid.

—Gary Lemco

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