“Strings Attached” = BRAHMS: Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120 No. 1, for clarinet and string quintet; SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73, for clarinet and string quartet; BRAHMS: Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 120 No. 2, for clarinet and string sextet (all arr. Geert van Keulen) – Arno Piters, clarinet/ members of Royal Concertgebouw Orch. – Challenge Classics multichannel SACD CC72572, 59:08 [Distr. by Allegro] (4/9/13) ****:
As arranger Geert van Keulen states in his notes to this recording, the art of musical arrangement is making a comeback after being frowned on for much of the twentieth century. And as I’ve said before in reviews of sundry arrangements made of late, some provide little or no added value. Luckily, that is not the case here, especially concerning the arrangements of the two clarinet sonatas. Brahms himself subjected his music to arrangement, writing versions for viola and piano and violin and piano; in the latter case, he entirely recast the piano part to suit the violin, with its loftier range.
As for the First Clarinet Sonata, avant-gardist Luciano Berio beat van Keulen to the punch, sort of: Berio arranged the sonata for clarinet and full orchestra, a version that surprises in its utter conventionality. (There are several recordings of the Berio arrangement currently available.) Van Keulen’s arrangement was written at the request of clarinetist Hein Wiedijk, while the other two arrangements on the current disc were made for Arno Piters, whose suave and melting tones grace this recording. The sonatas are works of the aging Brahms, who was contemplating retirement from composing until he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Mühlfeld’s inspiration gave Brahms a new lease on compositional life and resulted not only in the two sonatas but in the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio as well.
Van Keulen scored his arrangement of the First Sonata for clarinet and string quintet—that is, string quartet plus double bass. For the Second Sonata, van Keulen added an extra viola to the mix. The added instrument accentuates the rich inner voices in the piano score, which lends the music that smoky, autumnal quality one notes in late Brahms but also give the music a parlando effect, something that Brahms’s piano music shares with Schumann. For the most part, except in the more ebullient sections of these pieces, the double bass’s presence is more felt than heard, giving subtle heft to the ensemble rather than calling attention to itself, as is the case in, say, Schubert’s Trout Quintet. I find van Keulen’s arrangement of Brahms’s eventful piano part skillfully done. There’s a nice division of labor, each of the strings contributing colorfully to the mix. And what’s more, the arrangement sounds like Brahms, recalling his chamber scores involving strings: the quintets and sextets, especially.
Schumann’s Fantasiestücke is one of his finest and most characteristic pieces of chamber music, and I’ve always thought the piano part to be typically colorful and alive. Van Keulen maintains that “the lighter tone of the Fantasiestücke called for a somewhat smaller ensemble: string quartet – without contrabass. . . .” For me, this arrangement doesn’t work nearly as well as those of the sonatas. Except for the violins, the strings seem to have little to do, and the arrangement is not so much “light” as it is thin. But Arno Piters’s playing is as mellifluous as can be, so the inclusion of this piece is not unwelcome.
The Challenge Classics engineers, working in a studio in Belgium, produce a recording that showcases the virtues of surround-sound techniques applied to small ensembles. The sense of depth and spaciousness places this well ahead of many SACD recordings I’ve heard lately. So if you enjoy the art of the arranger, and even if you’re just an admirer of all things Brahms and/or Schumann, there is much here to savor.