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Clarinet Trios

Clarinetist David Shifrin joins David Finckel and Wu Han for this recording of clarinet trio masterpieces by Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruch.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano in B-flat Major, op. 11

Johannes Brahms
Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano in a minor, op. 114

Max Bruch
from Eight Pieces, op. 83


Wu Han (piano), David Shifrin (clarinet), David Finckel (cello)


Used with kind permission of Music@Menlo.

Notes on the Music:

by Patrick Castillo

Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in B-flat Major, op. 11

(born Bonn, baptized December 17, 1770; died Vienna, March 26, 1827)

Composed: 1797 Published: Vienna, 1798 Dedication: Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun

Beethoven’s Opus 11 Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano dates from the composer’s early years in Vienna, where he had traveled in 1792 to study with Haydn. This period produced numerous early masterpieces that established Beethoven’s reputation among the Viennese culturati. Between 1795 and 1800, he completed the Opus 1 Piano Trios; thirteen piano sonatas, including the iconic “Pathétique”; the Opus 18 String Quartets; and the First Symphony, among other important works. The Opus 11 Trio is one of several chamber works with winds that Beethoven also wrote during this time, alongside the Quintet for Piano and Winds, op. 16 (modeled after Mozart’s E-flat Major Quintet, K. 452); the Opus 25 Serenade for flute, violin, and viola; and the popular Opus 20 Septet. Though not aiming for the same weight as the more major opuses of this period, these works nevertheless betray as skilled a hand as penned the seminal Opus 18.

The Trio reveals Beethoven still beholden to the Classical style inherited from Haydn and Mozart, which he would extend with his audacious later works. (Like the Opus 16 Quintet, the Trio recalls a popular chamber work of Mozart’s—the “Kegelstatt” Trio for clarinet, viola, and piano.) Haydn and Mozart catalyzed the evolution of chamber music in the eighteenth century from parlor meringue to a sophisticated dialogue between distinct voices. The Trio reflects a similar aesthetic value, its conversational nature moreover enhanced by the contrasting timbres of clarinet, cello, and piano. (The impetus for scoring the Trio for what was, at the time, a peculiar combination of instruments remains unclear. Beethoven likely intended it for the Bohemian clarinet virtuoso Joseph Beer. At the urging of his publisher, Beethoven later prepared a version for the standard—and more salable— trio ensemble of violin, cello, and piano.)

Beethoven’s exploitation of the Trio’s spectrum of timbral possibilities injects the Allegro con brio with a vitality arguably lost in the arrangement with violin. Following the opening declamation, stated in emphatic octaves by the full ensemble, the first theme group unfolds over a spirited exchange betweenall three instruments. The clarinet comes to the fore to croon the sweet second theme above a restless staccato accompaniment in the cello (00:00). A witty, syncopated exchange (00:00), indebted perhaps to Haydn, signals the conclusion of the exposition. The development section is compact but dense. Beginning quietly in the unexpected tonality of D-flat major (00:00), it proceeds to traverse broad harmonic terrain before a brilliant scale in the piano heralds the return to the home key (00:00).

The Adagio begins with one of Beethoven’s most inspired cello solos and is soon given over to a tender operatic duet between the cello and clarinet. The rhetorical quality of each voice’s melodic ideas further heightens the sense of their dramatic identity. The final movement is an affable set of nine variations on the aria “Pria ch’io l’impegno” (“Before I begin, I must eat”) from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’Amor Marinaro. Largely forgotten today, Weigl was the composer of more than 30 operas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Beethoven’s selection of a Weigl theme for these variations attests to their popularity in their day.

Beethoven dedicated the Opus 11 Trio to the Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun, a prominent arts patron who had supported Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, and whom Mozart had considered “the most charming and most lovable lady I have ever met.” Thun’s son-in-law was the Austrian court official Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s most important patron during his early Vienna period. The Countess’s weakness for Beethoven’s music is recorded by a Lichnowsky acquaintance who observed Thun “on her knees in front of Beethoven who reclined on the sofa, begging him to play something, which he refused to do.” Despite the young virtuoso’s nonchalance on this occasion, the Countess’s enthusiasm was eventually rewarded with a delectable Trio whose lightheartedness belies its sophisticated craftsmanship.

Johannes Brahms
Trio in a minor, op. 114

(born Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died Vienna, April 3, 1897)

Composed: 1891 Published: 1892 Dedication: Richard Mühlfeld First performance:December 12, 1891, Berlin, by Richard Mühlfeld, cellist Robert Hausmann, and Brahms at the piano Other works from this period: String Quintet no. 2 in G Major, op. 111 (1890); Clarinet Quintet in b minor, op. 115 (1891); Two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano, op. 120 (1894)

By late 1890, Johannes Brahms had effectively retired, having “rejected the idea,” according to close friend Theodor Billroth, “that he … would ever compose anything again.” Circumstances happily changed during a trip to Meiningen in March 1891 when the court conductor Fritz Steinbach introduced Brahms to his principal clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld. The depth of Mühlfeld’s artistry (which, in addition to his virtuosity as a clarinetist, included considerable skill as a violinist and conductor) inspired Brahms to once again take up his pen. That summer, he composed the Trio in a minor, op. 114, for clarinet, cello, and piano, and the Clarinet Quintet, op. 115. Brahms, Mühlfeld, and Robert Hausmann (cellist of the Joachim Quartet and the dedicatee of Brahms’s Second Cello Sonata, op. 99) premiered the Trio in Berlin on December 12; Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet premiered Opus 115 on the same program. Brahms’s Two Sonatas, op. 120, for clarinet and piano, likewise intended for Mühlfeld, followed two years later. So fond was the composer of his muse, and so grateful for the newfound creative impulse of his final years, that Brahms ceded to Mühlfeld his share of the fees from their many joint performances of the Sonatas.

No instrument is better suited to the autumnal quality of Brahms’s late works than “Fräulein Klarinette,” as the composer lovingly called it. (Like Beethoven’s Opus 11 Trio, Brahms’s Opus 114 permits an alternate instrumentation, with viola in place of the clarinet—a substantial alteration of the work’s character.) Cast in the dolorous key of a minor, the Trio favors restraint over sturm und drang, calling to mind Brahms’s other great a minor chamber work, the String Quartet, op. 51, no. 2. The Trio’s pith—its four expertly wrought movements compress much sophisticated material into a mere 677 measures—likewise epitomizes Brahms’s mature craft.

The first movement Allegro’s opening measures herald the Trio’s introverted character: instead of a forceful tutti, the work begins with a plaintive utterance by the cello alone, a yearning upward arpeggio tailed by a resigned scalar descent.

The clarinet’s response illustrates Brahms’s highly evolved technique of thematic development. Rather than merely restate the melody, the clarinet mmediately extends it with a subtle early entrance (A) and closing echo (C), bookending a spontaneous interjection of triplets (B).

The gentle second theme (00:00) inverts the contour of the first, tranquilly descending before again rising. Following an emotionally fraught development section, the clarinet recapitulates each theme, the first theme significantly transformed (00:00), followed by a subdued remembrance of the second (00:00).

The lovingly executed melodic writing for both clarinet and cello in the Adagio betrays Brahms’s equal affection for Mühlfeld and Hausmann.

His freedom in utilizing each instrument’s complete range—from the burnished bass of the cello to its expressive tenor voice; the clarinet’s sweet high register down to the evocative chalumeau—testifies to the great facility of Brahms’s colleagues.

The Andante grazioso takes the form of a ländler, the pastoral precursor to the Viennese waltz. Taking the place of an expectedly harried scherzo, this movement instead is all effortless charm.

The concluding Allegro’s propulsive energy disrupts the serenity of the third movement’s final cadence. The wide leaps in the cello that begin the movement recall the triumphant opening of another work entrusted to Robert Hausmann, Brahms’s Opus 99 Cello Sonata. A sense of uneasiness permeates the movement, abetted by meters constantly shifting between 2/4, 6/8, and 9/8. The bravado of the opening measures quickly yields to a more contemplative music: abrupt silences punctuate fragmentary, questioning utterances by the cello and clarinet (00:00); the piano answers with a turbulent transition back to the theme (00:00). The unsettled dynamic between these two expressive modes precipitates the concise finale to the Trio’s stirring close.

Max Bruch
from Eight Pieces, op. 83
II. Allegro con moto
III. Andante con moto
VI. Nachtgesang (Nocturne): Andante con moto
VII. Allegro vivace, ma non troppo

(born Cologne, January 6, 1838; died Friedenau, Berlin, October 2, 1920)

Composed: 1909 Published: Berlin, 1910 Other works from this period:Osterkantate (Easter Cantata), op. 81 (1908), and Das Wessobrunner Gebet, op. 82 (1910), for chorus, organ, and orchestra; Konzertstück for Violin and Orchestra, op. 84; Romance for Viola and Orchestra, op. 85; Six Lieder, op. 86 (1911)

Like his more celebrated contemporary Johannes Brahms, the German composer Max Bruch was a product and steadfast devotee of nineteenth-century Romanticism. He staunchly resisted the progressive language of Wagner and Liszt, preferring instead to explore traditional Classical forms; his music reflects a special penchant for Mendelssohn and Schumann. Bruch’s stylistic position, combined with the unlucky circumstance of living and working in Brahms’s shadow, ensured the general under-recognition of his music during his lifetime. He became, and remains, primarily known for his first orchestral publication, the ravishing Opus 26 Violin Concerto—much to the composer’s chagrin, as the staggering popularity of this early work doomed him to one-hit wonderdom despite an oeuvre of more than 100 compositions. Bruch’s predicament remains: much of his music—across numerous genres, including opera, lieder, choral, chamber, and orchestral works—still lies peripheral to the standard repertoire.

Like many works from Bruch’s unjustly little-known catalogue, the Eight Pieces, op. 83, for clarinet, cello (or viola), and piano (four of which appear on this recording) deserve a closer listen. Each exhibits a keen melodic instinct on par with the enchanting slow movement of the Opus 26 Concerto. They are quintessentially Romantic vignettes, impassioned yet introspective; a sense of nostalgia, ideally suited to the clarinet’s particular warmth, pervades the set. Befitting the ensemble’s dark palette, all but one of the Eight Pieces are in minor keys.

The Allegro con moto (No. 2) resembles Brahms in its pathos and deeply felt lyricism. (It moreover shares the key of b minor with Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet of 1891—a work with which Bruch was surely familiar.) The piano’s restless triplet accompaniment provides a backdrop of Romantic anxiety to sweeping expressive lines in the clarinet and cello.

Evoking the expressive dichotomy personified by Schumann’s alter-egos Florestan and Eusebius, the Andante con moto (No. 3) presents a dialogue between two distinct tempers. An angular cello soliloquy propels the opening section, emphatically punctuated by rolled chords in the piano. The mood changes with the entrance of the clarinet (00:00), the cello’s stilted gait yielding to a lyrical, legato passage. Bruch marks the clarinet’s wistful melody sempre piano e dolce. The contrary moods reconcile at the movement’s conclusion (00:00), with the clarinet soothing the cello’s agita.

Bruch designates the poetic sixth movement Nachtgesang (Nocturne). The clarinet’s dark chalumeau and middle registers foster in the music an enigmatic quality. The effervescent Allegro vivace (No. 7) follows. In contrast to the Nachtgesang, this brightest of the Opus 83 pieces sets the clarinet dancing spiritedly above the staff. The movement’s gleeful air hearkens back to the scherzos of Weber and the early Romantics. At the dawn of a musical era marked by the defiance of Classical precedents— Bruch completed his Opus 83 more than a decade after Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and less than three years before Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire— even the most buoyant of the Eight Pieces suggests Bruch’s nostalgic longing for a bygone time.