“BRAHMS and REGER: Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano” – Guy Yehuda, clar./Ralph Votapek, p. – Blue Griffin (2 CDs)

by | Jul 8, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

“BRAHMS and REGER: Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano” – JOHANNES BRAHMS: Clarinet Sonata in f minor, Op. 120, No. 1; Clarinet Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2; MAX REGER: Clarinet Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 49, No. 1; Clarinet Sonata in f-sharp minor, Op. 49, No. 2 – Guy Yehuda, clarinet/Ralph Votapek, piano – Blue Griffin BGR363 (2 CDs), 84:50 [Distr. by Albany] (7/10/15) ****:

The two Brahms Sonatas for clarinet and piano, of which he wrote viola versions as well, are common clarinet fare. More properly, they are mandatory clarinet repertory. No player who aspires and trains to be a serious performer cannot get by without knowing every measure of these luxurious masterpieces. Subsequently, there are many wonderful recorded performances of these works out and many non-clarinetists have heard these works many a time. We cannot say the same about the two formidable Sonatas of Max Reger, and what a splendid and fortunate pairing these pairs make and allow us to hear what they have in common.

Reger composed his Sonatas in 1900, but six years after those by Brahms. They are both – like the Brahms – written as a pair of works for a particular clarinet virtuoso with whom the composer had a friendship. For Brahms, his muse was the great Richard Mühlfeld for whom he also wrote the iconic Trio for clarinet, cello and piano and the Quintet for clarinet and strings. Max Reger wrote his two Sonatas for Johann Kürmeyer, who also inspired Reger to write a Quintet. In fact, Reger was moved to write his works upon hearing Kürmeyer play the Brahms first Sonata one night.

Lastly, the pairs have some dichotomies in common. It is often correctly observed that Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in f minor is dark and brooding; tumultuous in spots while the second is a bit more ‘autumnal’ and containing a more relaxed beauty in its E-flat center. Nearly all works by Reger are more chromatically meandering and ‘restless’ than those of Brahms but we hear that his Sonata in A-flat, No. 1, is propulsive and restless even though it resides in major, while the f-sharp minor (a very unusual key choice for both instruments) is, nonetheless, a bit less ‘troubled’ than the first. It is possible that the technical difficulties posed by both of Reger’s Sonatas as well as the characteristically thorny harmonic flow that – unlike Brahms; wherein the opposite hold true – becomes the ‘show’ over any substantially memorable melodies is but one reason why clarinetists all know and perform the Brahms works by a wide margin.

The performances here are simply wonderful. I admit to loving some of the older performances by DePeyer or Mitchell Lurie probably because those are what I grew up on but these recordings by the amazing young Israeli-American Guy Yehuda and the equally amazing veteran solo pianist Ralph Votapek are very attention getting. Yehuda is becoming very justifiably well known as a concert artist and soloist with a number of orchestras and has worked with a number of current composers. He has beautiful tone and a supple technique. Ralph Votapek has been a guest performer and clinician virtually all over the world for many years. I had the good fortune to hear him with the Chicago Symphony many years ago. Presently, both Guy Yehuda and Ralph Votapek are teaching artists at Michigan State University.

When the Brahms Sonatas are played really well, as they are here, I never mind one more recording. Recordings of the Reger Sonatas are a rarer find; though, until now, I was partial to those by Janet Hilton. This recording serves as a wonderful and convincing pairing played extremely well. I would recommend this to any aspiring clarinetist and to anyone who loves these works.

—Daniel Coombs

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