Brahms Sonata in Eb for Clarinet and Piano, Opus 120, #2

I have always taken a special meaning for the place in the chamber music by Brahms for this work, the Eb Sonata #2, for it is the last chamber music of his career, and my belief that this fact was very much on his mind during the composition, and, that in a way, it is a kind of farewell to this idiom.Again one must caution the clarinetist concerning the choice of and treatment of the accompanist, the part being in a way even more difficult than that of the F minor sonata. In the final movement of this sonata there are several sections in which the piano is given parts much more difficult and indeed prominent than the clarinetist. In fact in this movement, a series of variations, the pianist is to the fore, that is to say “en dehors” for most of the last several minutes of the work.”Allegro amabile”Tempi are again a concern and again Brahms is unique in his tempo directions, for instance the first movement is marked Allegro, but there is the added amabile. An amiable allegro? Perhaps, but when we really think about these descriptives we are more concerned finally with the “restraint” that amabile gives to the thrust of the Allegro.The first movement begins quietly with the clarinet playing immediately the first theme at piano, with simple and quiet accompaniment which comes to a partial close with the first “clarinetistical” problem, the execution of the quintuplet at the end of bar 10. The question always remains with the clarinet as to how to execute these 5 notes. Unfortunately, they are almost always performed incorrectly, usually too rapidly and completely losing the tranquility of the previous measures. One need to remember that five notes played in the space of 4 is only a small amount faster, to be specific, 5% faster. Not much at all. The problem is easily solved by having the clarinetist plays these 5 notes placidly, in dimuendo (as marked) and in the same manner of the prior 16ths. In fact, the piano does not play in this spot so indeed, it present very little problem if the soloist remember to make a diminuendo and keep the legato from the Bb to the high D very well connected. Not so easy, or better said, easier said than done, for this is an easily overlooked interval and the instinctive thing to do is to play it louder. It does “come” more easily, however at a terrible cost: an crescendo instead of a diminuendo and a loss of the context.In bar 16 we have the first incidence of concerto-like difficulty in the piano part. If the piece has been started too quickly the piano part is here completely obliterated at a cost of losing the whole movement. Again the key word here is amabile. For the pianists a perfectly secure and mature way of conceiving of this transition part which is so very difficult is to play at the exact beginning tempo or even slower. There are suddenly so many more notes with such large intervals that the only way in which interest and understanding are maintained is through very deliberate playing. And of course the tendency, especially amongst young players, is to rush.A suggestion here which is a timesaver: begin this movement only as fast as the pianist can cleanly execute bars 15 and 16. Had I known this as a young student I would have saved many hours in rehearsal time. One thing is clear: this is a neoclassical piece, meaning that there are not too many tempo deviations, and with a composer such as Brahms, consider that even less. Bars 15 and 16 set the tempo for the first movement.The transition passage starting on bar 28 contains another difficulty, one of rhythmic and of a syncopation proportions. The piano’s accompaniment here is duple meter, the clarinetist playing the melody in triplets, setting a complex rhythmic problem of which awareness is most important. The tendency is for the clarinet to switch to the piano’s metrical impetus, meaning they tend to play the rhythm of an eighth and two sixteenths. Read this place again, for it is tricky and the accident will occur without the awareness.What follows is both developmental and a transition finally resulting in the recapitulation starting at bar 103, fairly standard until the lovely coda of this movement at bar 162, another problem with syncopation between triplets and duplets, a constant in the music of Brahms. Now here one must remember that we must play accurately, that the syncopation is intended, however we may not play it in an aggressive manner, for then the grace of this coda and of Brahms can be distorted and made pedantic, rather than graceful.”Allegro appassionato”The second movement holds one big problem, again the tempo. An anecdote of a performance I heard of this sonata by the violist Paul Doktor and the pianist, Yalta Menuhin. He began the movement very quickly and when they arrived (too quickly) at bar nine, the pianist simply could not play that difficult part at the “too fast” tempo. So again, be very careful. Understand that always, the piano part is much more difficult than is that of the clarinet, but more than that, realize, that all the notes need to be heard at somewhat the same tempo.The “Sostenuto” containing new material is meant to be performed in a slower tempo, very legato and hymn-like, and the original tempo resumes at bar 140 and remains until the conclusion of this movement.The finale of this sonata is the last chamber music that Brahms ever wrote. It is a statement that I always recall before beginning this movement and it helps you to establish the tempo, for these is nothing carefree about this movement. It contains great moments in the repertoire and also is somewhat recapitulative of the composers entire stylistic palette.”Andante con moto”In form it is a theme with variations. The tempo is walking and with motion. Not fast. Play it too fast and, well it is unplayable for either of you and distorts the movement into something it is not. Ideally the tempo is ca. 60 for the eighth note. While the tempo does deviate, and does more as you begin to experience multi performances of this sonata, it is not incorrect to play it all at the same tempo, not at all. Short breathing spaces may be taken at the conclusion of each variation. As performer we learn when we may take more or less time. The final andante is played quite slowly and is difficult to sustain. It is followed by the final variation containing the most difficult and rapid music of the two sonatas, so, be advised to take plenty of time after the slow variation and prior to the last variation.The grazioso contains some of Brahms most beautiful “gypsy” style and is a wonderful duets for clarinet and piano, followed by the slow pulsating penultimate variation (think of the first movement of the first symphony). The Allegro of the final variation is allegro, not scherzo. A rapid tempo can be caused by thoughtlessness or nervousness. Avoid both and you will experience a wonderful friendship with most intimate, yet well-formed chamber music by this composer.There is one special spot within the coda of this movement which causes much difficulty. The difficulty is caused by the fact that the music surpasses the calligraphy of music notation of the time. Eighteen measure prior to the end of this sonata there is a diminished 7th chord in the piano. In the second beat of the following measure the piano plays the entire thematic material of the movement, always accenting the second beat of the measure. Thirteen bars before the end of the work the piano begins a series of 16th notes grouped in threes and sounding very much like triplets. However they are not, they are 16ths. Very difficult to count especially for the clarinetist. Here is the way to do it, completely eliminating the counting problem allowing complete security of ensemble. The piano plays 5 groups of 3 16ths (like triplets) at which point the clarinet comes in with the second eighth note of the measure, and at this point the return to duple time is achieved, the ensemble ending together to what is a great climactic arrival. (Clarinetist: count 5 groups of 16ths, then come in aggressively with the second eighth of the measure. Pianist follows the clarinet and ends in the duple time “surprise coda”. All professionals learn to pay the ending in this manner, however mostly it is a rote situation. Counting in the aforesaid manner is a way of complete security.)Good Luck!

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