Brahms, Sonata in E-flat for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 2

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897

Sonata in E-flat Major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 2, 1894

Johannes BrahmsAround 1890, Brahms declared to friends and wrote to his publisher that he would retire as a composer. But he happened to witness a performance of the German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld who Brahms called the greatest wind player in the world. Brahms was so inspired that he deferred his retirement long enough to write four final works all featuring the clarinet in a starring role. Comprising a quintet, a trio and two sonatas, these last works have an aura that has been called autumnal due to the circumstances of Brahms’ career, the mood of the music and the magic tone of the clarinet.

The sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2 is the second of the two sonatas Brahms wrote for clarinet and piano. A glowing warmth pervades the first movement sonata perfectly matching word amabile in its title: sweet, tender, lovingly. The central movement is a lightly swaying scherzo typical of Brahms’s intermezzi both in his chamber works and his late pieces for solo piano. The trio section of its ternary form takes a slightly more somber cast with music of a dignified procession, almost hymn-like, before the initial theme returns, slightly recast and developed to take on some of the solemnity of the trio. The finale begins with the same glowing warmth of the first movement merged with the poised promenade of the trio in the second movement suggesting a composite work of unified character with minimal contrasts. But this turns out to be a theme for generating a set of variations whose dreamy, almost wistful character once again suggests the indescribably gentle charm of the late piano intermezzi and these final clarinet compositions from this erstwhile lion of German romantic music softly humming his final notes.

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