Brahms Clarinet Sonatas
Brahms gave the first performance of his two clarinet sonatas in 1895 with Richard Mühlfeld, who died in 1907 aged only 51 and so might well have left us some good recordings. Contemporary accounts speak of the “graceful, limpid” quality of his playing, and the wonderful group of works the elderly Brahms wrote for him suggests as much. Sharon Kam keeps everything simple and, probably like Mühlfeld, hardly uses any vibrato, though her phrasing is expressive particularly in the slow movements. The Allegretto grazioso of the F minor Sonata is indeed graceful and the Andante con moto of the E flat Sonata is very gently handled, as are the passages which Brahms marks sostenuto in both sonatas. She is less attuned to the sense of drama which was also said to characterise Mühlfeld’s playing, and which is suggested by the headlong Vivace of the F minor Sonata. But at all times she and the excellent Martin Helmchen work as a true chamber music partnership rather than as soloist and accompanist. The recording is attentive to the difficult matters of balance which Brahms sets his players.
The Trio also maintains a nice balance between the three players, not only in matters of phrasing, which are sensitively and responsively handled, but in such things as picking up the analogy between the deep chalumeau register of the clarinet and the tone of the cello at the same pitch. This is elegant, companionable playing in the manner which is entirely suggested by Brahms’s affectionate writing. He marked the first movement of the E flat sonata Allegro amabile.