“Clarinet. Universe” = BRAHMS: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120 No. 1 (arr. for clarinet and orch. by BERIO; HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32 – Philharmonisches Orchester Lübeck / Reiner Wehle, clarinet / Roman Brogli-Sacher – Musicaphon multichannel SACD MSP 56912, 74:10 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***1/2:
This SACD is more like “Clarinet. Planet”—specifically Planet Brahms-Berio. Gustav Holst is along to supply the universe, or at least the solar system, for this musical-astronomical outing. He really doesn’t have much to do with clarinets, except that there are several in the large orchestra he writes for. You have to admit that “Clarinet. Universe” is kind of off-the-wall as an album title, especially since this recording captures a live performance that had no special unifying element originally, at least as far as I can see. Even so, it’s an entertaining disc and except for a couple of minor cavils, it’s recommendable.
The two Brahms Clarinet Sonatas are products of Brahms’s last years and are in fact the last of his chamber works. Inspired by his friendship with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, Brahms produced a series of masterpieces, including in addition to the sonatas the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio. Mühlfeld’s suave mellifluous tones won for him Brahms’s sobriquet Fräulein Klarinette. Those qualities are evident throughout the sonatas, which are the epitome of Brahms in his mellow autumnal vein, the heaven-storming young romantic replaced by a reflective master at peace with the world.
The surprise here, of course, is that we’re offered Luciano Berio’s orchestration of the piece, and if you expect a modernist “reimagining” of Brahms, as in the case of Berio’s Rendering based on unfinished works of Schubert, surprise again! Berio gives us mostly Brahms, supplying just a couple measures of introductory material for the orchestra in the first two movements. Further surprise—the orchestration is such a model of restraint that it sounds more like early Richard Strauss than late Brahms. No Brahmsian heaviness here. Most attractive is the last movement, with its opening trumpet call and chattering wind figures. Reiner Wehle negotiates the technical hurdles Brahms throws at him with ease and plays cleanly and elegantly throughout the wide tonal range that Brahms employs. (The first theme of the work covers almost three octaves.)
Moving on to the next century and almost to another universe, we have Holst’s ceaselessly recorded The Planets. There are so many recordings, so many great-to-classic recordings, that the Lübeck Philharmonic’s would have to be very special indeed in order to get noticed. I have to say, it isn’t quite that special. Tempi tend to be a little sluggish in the faster numbers such as “Mars” and maybe a bit brisk in the slow ones such as “Saturn.” “Mercury,” which should be a fleet-footed scherzo, is sort of flat-footed here, lacking the dash that Boult or Previn or Dutoit bring to the piece. On the other hand, if you give this performance a chance and don’t compare it to others as you listen, it’s enjoyable on its own terms. “Mars,” slowish though it may be, has all the requisite menace, and “Uranus” is a romp.
Perhaps helped by those slightly slower tempi, the playing of the orchestra is especially alert, even commanding. And then the recording is a definite plus—a great improvement over the last Lübeck Philharmonic Live recording I listened to: Postwar Sounds. Switzerland, which had balance problems and a dry acoustic. This time, the engineers have opened the sound out, giving us a tonal picture that matches Holst’s deep-space musical gestures in “Saturn” and “Neptune.” Strings are silky, transients are clean and convincingly placed, bass notes firm, as in the famous organ glissando at the end of “Uranus.”
So this recording may not rival your favorites in the Holst but could be a pleasurable addition—especially given the novelty factor provided by Planet Brahms-Berio.
– Lee Passarella