May 10, 2018


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op. 105, No. 4; Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op. 105, No. 1; Regenlied, Op. 59, No. 3. Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch, violin; Tuija Hakkila, piano. Ondine. $16.99.

Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto; Six Humorous Bagatelles; Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano; Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano; Serenata in Vano. David Shifrin, clarinet; Ryan Reynolds, bassoon; William Purvis, horn; Jon Greeney, snare drum; Benjamin Hoffman and Theodore Arm, violins; Jennifer Frautschi, viola; Mihai Marica, cello; Curtis Daily, double bass; Yevgeny Yontov, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     Unusual presentations of well-known or moderately-well-known pieces always run the risk of seeming like gimmicks – but when well done, atypical ways of handling music can bring new insight into the works, along with pleasures of their own. Certainly that is the case with the excellent presentation of Brahms’ violin-and-piano (in this case often called piano-and-violin) sonatas by Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch and Tuija Hakkila. This Ondine CD is special in two ways and odd in a third. One unusual element is the inclusion of three songs whose material Brahms incorporated, in altered form, into the sonatas. The CD opens with Auf dem Kirchhofe and uses the other two songs as interludes between the sonatas. This makes for a very attractive package that can be heard straight through, for listeners so inclined, without any sense that the sonatas, which are quite different from each other, are “bumping up” against one another. The second unusual aspect of the CD is that Kaakinen-Pilch and Hakkila play instruments of Brahms’ own time – it is worth remembering that period-instrument performance is not confined to Baroque music but can be equally effective in works of the Romantic era, a time of gut strings, less use of vibrato, and pianos with less key travel and keys often set closer together (making some hand spans easier and affecting the sound of chords). Kaakinen-Pilch plays an anonymous violin of Brahms’ time; Hakkila uses an 1864 Streicher piano – a type much favored by Brahms himself – for Sonata No. 1 and Regenlied, an 1892 Bösendorfer for the rest of the music. The instruments are very well-balanced against each other, and the performances, which are presented at pacing that fits the music just about perfectly, offer exactly the sort of give-and-take between the musicians that Brahms surely intended. There are many fine recordings of these sonatas available, and this is one of the finest, getting an extra edge from the period-instrument approach and the inclusion of the song material. As for the disc’s oddity, that lies in the sequence in which the sonatas are presented: No. 2, then No. 3, and finally No. 1. There is no demonstrable reason for this, and its effect is, if anything, to undercut, to an extent, the cleverness of sprinkling the songs amid the longer works. Still, this is a relatively minor quibble, and of course listeners need not listen to the CD straight through and can arrange to hear the tracks in any order at all. Still, this particular disc invites a straight-through hearing, and it would have been better to arrange it so listeners could readily absorb not only the songs’ influence on the sonatas but also the changes in Brahms’ handling of violin-and-piano interplay from No. 1 (1878) to No. 2 (1886) to No. 3 (1888).

     Unusual elements abound on a new Delos CD featuring elegant clarinet playing by David Shifrin, who takes on a series of works by Carl Nielsen in unexpected and uniformly successful ways. The big piece here is the Clarinet Concerto, but it appears in a never-before-recorded chamber-music arrangement made by Rene Orth. This sets Shifrin against eight musicians rather than a full orchestra – although “against” really applies only to the snare drum, which here (as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5) seems determined to interrupt the musical flow and distract from it. The opposition between clarinet and snare drum is even clearer in this chamber arrangement than in Nielsen’s original scoring, and the rapprochement with which the work concludes is equally satisfying. This concerto can easily sound episodic – indeed, it is episodic in its design – but Shifrin manages to find coherence throughout and maintain musical flow even though the short episodes of which the work consists make it difficult to sustain a sense of organization. There is a delightful contrast between the chamber version of the concerto, which opens the CD, and the Serenata in Vano, which closes it and was recorded at the same live performance. Nielsen scored Serenata in Vano for a very unusual instrumental complement: clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. The result is a work whose sound is unique, with the music itself being wry and witty. This is a three-section piece whose “story” involves serenaders seeking unsuccessfully to appeal to a woman with two different musical offerings, then giving up (hence the piece’s title) and heading home while playing a jaunty march for their own enjoyment. The players certainly share the pleasure here, not only with the audience for which they performed but also for listeners to the CD. In between the chamber works are three clarinet-and-piano pieces, two of which have their own unexpected presentation elements. One of those two is Six Humorous Bagatelles, a piano work arranged by Steven Cohen (himself a clarinetist) for clarinet and piano. This set of six small pieces, Nielsen’s own Children’s Corner Suite, dates to 1894-97 and therefore predates Debussy’s of 1908, which is also in six movements, by more than a decade. Nielsen’s work is far less often heard, which is a shame, since the straightforward miniatures are all nicely conceived and written at just the right length to avoid overstaying their welcome. Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov handle them with just the right amount of delicacy and charm. The two are also well-matched in Shifrin’s own transcription for clarinet and piano of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano – in fact, the first of these two early works (1889) takes on additional depth as arranged here, and the second is suitably playful. The CD also includes the short Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano, an even earlier work (dating to 1881, when Nielsen was just 16). Here too Shifrin and Yontov blend and contrast very well indeed, and the music benefits from their camaraderie. The arrangements of most of the pieces on this disc may be unusual, but it is the very high quality of the music-making, not the unexpected elements, that makes the recording a pleasure from start to finish.

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