Clarinet Trios = BEETHOVEN: Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11; BRAHMS: Trio in A Minor, Op. 114; BRUCH: 4 Pieces from Eight Pieces, Op. 83 – David Shifrin, clarinet/ David Finckel, cello/ Wu Han, piano – ArtistLed 11101-2, 64:40 [www.artistled.com] ****:
Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, the guiding lights of both Music@Menlo and ArtistLed recordings, extend their excursions into the chamber music repertory with veteran clarinetist David Shifrin (b. 1950), noted for his advocacy of the basset clarinet in the performance of Mozart. The present inscriptions made 1-2 December 2009 embrace three staples of the clarinet trio medium, the recording production supervised by Da-Hong Seetoo at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, New York.
Beethoven’s 1797 Trio in B-flat Major seems to have been composed for one Joseph Beer, a Bohemian clarinet virtuoso. Likely, Beethoven knew the so-called “Kegelstatt” Trio by Mozart, K. 498. Each of the principals in the Allegro con brio has a series of declamations and ariosi, especially cello and clarinet’s singing over the plastic roulades and Mannheim rockets from Wu Han’s Hamburg Steinway.  The conversations take a decidedly syncopated turn, wandering into D-flat Major before the inevitable return to the tonic. In the Adagio movement we find one of Beethoven’s truly generous cello melodies that quickly evolves into a gracious duet for cello and clarinet over a lulling keyboard part. The last movement presents us a series of nine variations on a popular aria from an opera by Joseph Weigl, “Pria ch’io l‘impegno,” “Before I begin work, I must eat.” Among these brilliant effects comes the solo piano variation with knotty agogic accents, which may well have had tongues wagging at its premier. The respective tones of cellist Finckel and clarinetist Shifrin ring pearly and luxuriously blended, the soul of instrumental clarity and nuanced definition.
By now, the story of composer Johannes Brahms and his fateful 1891 meeting with Richard Muehlfeld of the Meiningen Orchestra under Fritz Steinbach is well documented and common currency. The encounter brought Brahms out of “retirement” to engage in the throes of several compositions, including his A Minor Trio, whose autumnal sentiments find their perfect realization in his writing for clarinet and cello. No less a force in the composition of the Trio is cellist Robert Haussmann (of the Joachim Quartet), whose influence we can feel in the expansively melodious writing for his instrument to complement the lyrical tropes in the clarinet. The dark coloring in Wu Han’s keyboard part bears some affect from the late piano music of Op. 116 and Op. 117, the composer’s “old bachelor music.” Both cello and clarinet enjoy the full range of their respective instruments in the passionately restrained Adagio, especially the extreme colors in Shifrin’s clarinet, high and chalumeau. Melting harmonies insure the shelf-life of this fine rendition. The Andante grazioso turns to Schubert’s examples of Austrian laendler, evocative of the D Major Symphony and its pastoral mood. Shifrin leads all three instruments in a rural colloquy of refined beauty. Certainly the broad melodic sweep of the cello part for Hausmann recalls the power of each of the Brahms cello sonatas, particularly the F Major, Op. 99. The final Allegro allows more disturbed energies into the mix, with rhythmic variation embracing 2/4, 6/8, and 9/8. The melodic contour leaps and then resigns itself to those fragmentary sequences of which Brahms is a past master. Finckel and Han assume the leadership in the latter pages, with Han’s stabbing chords driving the convulsive peroration to a majestic close.
Max Bruch remains the musical understudy of Brahms, a composer of inspiration but cut in a more academic cast. Still, Bruch’s undeniable penchant for strong Romantic melody assets itself in these pieces from 1910, opening with the most luxurious, the Nachtgesang or Nocturne, Op. 83, No. 6. The guiding spirit seems to have been Schumann of the fantasy-pieces for winds or cello and piano. Silky plaints from Shifrin and his colleagues will require repeated hearings. No. 2 in B Minor is marked Allegro con moto, and its dark triplets in the keyboard contribute to the unsettling pathos we might ascribe to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The Allegro vivace, No. 7 of the set, takes an impish cue from Mendelssohn and Weber, especially the latter’s extroverted potpourri for wind and string instruments. A passionate declamation from the cello and piano opens No. 3, Allegro con moto, a virtual cello sonata in pensive colors. Shifrin enters sempre piano e dolce, a clarinet sonata in pure nostalgia a la Schumann. Strummed figures from Han induce Finckel to re-enter with martial sentiments, again the clarinet tacet. The clarinet appears from its lofty aerie to console the cello’s lament, and now a true dialogue emerges and proceeds to the end, almost in the manner of an exquisite folk song.
—Gary Lemco