Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Around 1890, a fifty-seven year old Brahms gave indications that he would retire as a composer. Saddled with a meticulous, self-critical nature and the long standing burden of great expectations established by Schumann even before Brahms made his debut, it is entirely characteristic that he would take stock and ceremoniously quit while he was ahead. With an unquestionably illustrious career and a solid oeuvre of masterworks behind him, Brahms seemed to be finished. He remarked, “I have worked enough; now let the young folks take over.”
In early 1891, however, Brahms became intoxicated by encountering the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired by a fresh muse compose once again. Between 1891 and 1894, Brahms composed a clutch of four final chamber works featuring the clarinet: a trio, a quintet and two sonatas in that order. These are positively magical works. Mellow, melancholy, warmly nostalgic and fleetingly dire, the music perfectly exploits each of these signature characteristics of the colorful clarinet for a composite mood that has often been called “autumnal.” Expressing a distinctive kind of wan, golden light amidst a bluster of falling leaves and the sharply etched chill of bare branches, Brahms literally experienced a late Indian summer as a composer. Embodying these moods quite vividly, the trio and quintet are significant masterworks made especially great by the uniquely expressive instrumentation. Not since Mozart had the clarinet been given such an exquisite chamber setting.
The Brahms trio is both mellow and deep, by turns, dark then golden. Despite a possible expectation of shorter or lighter that “clarinet trio” might suggest, this is a full-length Classical-Romantic epic with a wealth of themes, moods, developments and dramatic narratives. The texture is balanced among the three instruments placing them in bold relief and perfectly exploiting their finest attributes with both cello and clarinet sharing the feature, lyrical roles. In the four-movement plan, the outer two (first and last) project a dark and melancholic mood from the lonely cello solo in the beginning to the decisive crush of the final cadence at the end, a rough outer skin that nests the sweetest fruit within. Both inner movements glow with a gentle, delicate brightness reminding many of Brahms’s late intermezzi, his touching soft spots. But both the singing Adagio and the lilting Andantino are refined, nuanced expressions of Brahms’s mastery of scoring, thematic variation, lyrical invention and formal elegance. All of this melds into a supreme musicality of beauty, affect and design at once idiomatic and eternal. Though perhaps less well known than the beloved quintet, the trio may well be finer. Thanks to Herr Mühlfeld, we have both.