Brahms Sonata in Fm for Clarinet and Piano, Opus 120, #1

Unlike other such works, these remain unique both in their compositional beauty of form and the clarinet; never in a 50 year plus career have I really felt that all there was to learn was, in fact learned. These works give you difficulties from the very first time you perform them until you stop, and the reason it stops is merely because you have, for the moment walked away. Here then are some of those difficulties for suggestion for consideration:

I first experienced the Eb Sonata, first movement when as a student in my second year of Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass., a suburb of Boston, when I played the first movement with a piano student named Irma Levine in a competition performed on the radio. The first prize was 5 dollars and either one or several boxes of Posts Sugar Crisps as I remember it, and we won (this was 1948) and it must have sounded ghastly, though I’ve never heard it, as there was not available duplication at the time).

The point is to say that Brahms was difficult then, and it has remained so, but let us hope at another level!

So this essay on the two sonatas, Opus 120 is a reflection on my long experience in performing them, (each more than 50 times in concert) and all of the many coaches I have had in the preparation, my experience in conducting Brahms Symphonies and in doing all of the works of this composer in a very long career.

These works were composed in 1894 and were first performed privately by Brahms and his favorite clarinetist, Richard Muhlfield in November of that year. Brahms at the piano and Mr. Muhlfield “On clarinet” as they say much to the dismay of purists. Present at the reading was Clara and Robert Schumann, and Joseph Joachim. (Would you have fainted dead away or not??) The first public performance was in 1895.

As you know, this was not the first clarinet music composed by Brahms, but it was the last, and he held them in his highest regard. There is of course, the Trio (Opus 114), the Quintet (Opus 115), and finally the Sonatas.

Please be advised that there is only one edition that I would recommend and that is “G. Henle” and they are URTEXT, the copy to have for it comes from Brahms personal copy of the First Edition by Carl Simrock.

This is always the edition to buy when you are beginning the study of a work of posterity, of history. One might as well have the original copy or the original itself, for editions with many errors do exist, and are performed.

One of the many teachers and musicians for whom I performed these works was Nadia Boulanger (while in Fontainebleau). Not only did she have magnificent suggestions, but she also taught a reverence for music which I have never experiences before or after. All music was to be covered, either in cellophane or wax paper, or even bound. If you came to a rehearsal with loose music, you were “out of luck” … Just think of your students coming to lessons these days with Xerox copies, completely untaped, out of order, sometimes a page missing … it does boggle the mind.

Of course the reader knows that it is the duplication of music that destroyed the whole industry. If you go to purchase an actual copy of music, it is impossibly expensive. The Brahms Sonatas cost a dollar and forty cents back then (1948) and all music, chamber music was terribly easy to buy and to collect. Now? Well, let us get to the music.

Before anything else, you must learn this music thoroughly, prior to asking a pianist to accompany you. Actually that is the incorrect term, for the work is much more difficult and intricate for the pianist than the clarinetist. Properly called these ought to be called Sonatas for Piano with Clarinet accompaniment, somewhat like the Beethoven Cello Sonatas.

First Movement, “Allegro appassionato”
Please note that the first movement of the F minor is marked Allegro appassionato. Many many times, these words are simply not read or understood. Both of the words are important and the movement must be though of a a passionate Allegro. What does that mean? Not much unless carefully though of and out. After many years of playing these and thinking these works, I have come to know that in the chamber music of Brahms, really fast allegro movements are infrequently found. That is to say in another way that Brahms likes his chamber music played slowly, and he mentions this several times. When I think of the many times I have heard pianists start this movement (the first) at a fast clip (fast is 120 for the quarter, or more), I remember the many botched performances I have heard. By appassionato what is meant is measured , deliberate, but allegro. Finally to prove the point about the tempo, it is simply unplayable at 120 for the quarter. While the clarinetist can perform at this tempo, the pianist, ANY pianist cannot get close to this tempo, so please do not try it. It is not a scherzo-type allegro.

All must be clear, heard and accurate and “in-tune” as well and that is the first insurmountable problem of the opening of the clarinet part of this sonata. Prior to going out “on stage” play the very opening with the pianist in order to perfectly tune with the pianist. If you do this and it is perfect you are “on your way” so to speak.

The first hurdle comes with the Bb in the 5th measure, the second in the Bb in the next measure, an octave higher. These must be the same Bb, believe me. Next is the impossible one, the interval formed in the 8th measure, the legato playing of C to high Eb. One might as well walk off right there. It must be legato, and there is only one way to achieve this as it is a somewhat technical problem: The easiest way to negotiate the two notes are with the C played with the left little finger, and the Eb then becomes an easier singular motion and for many people that is the end of the problem. If you continue to find it difficult the reason lies with grimacing and moving your embouchure between the two notes. REMEMBER, it is NOT the playing of either note, but the negotiation between the two. And what happens in between is the difficulty. Do not make any extraneous movement while you travel between the two notes. No shoulder movement, no squinting of eyes, and NO pinching of the embouchure. This is a simple interval to play. Making it difficult makes it impossible to play without some sort of glitch or worse. Here is another point: if you are getting to the point where you are petrified of this difficult place, forget it, do not slur the interval, but articulate it very quietly. Brahms will forgive …Never ever sacrifice this lovely music for that one slur. (Remember, however that this is a last resort!)

There are many who will think of the problems as being the most important of the movement; certainly it is that interval that leaves the impression. However the second theme beginning at bar 53 is the source of the worst possible mistake on the movement: the shortening of the third eighth note in this measure and the inadvertent loud accent usually placed upon this note. There is not crescendo written and certainly no accent and no traditional shortening of this full eighth note. By avoiding the accent the shortening, you will be performing this as written.

Bars 62-65 must be practised slowly and accurately prior to taking these measures “up to tempo”. If you do have the urtext, the articulations are important here. From bar #90, there is a traditional diminuendo from 90 until 95 at the change of key. Here, make sure you save your most beautiful legato and do not make the mistake of NOT marking fingerings, those alternating between left and right little fingers get confusing and one does not need needless errors in the quiet of that place.

The transition back to the recapitulation should be carefully practised as this contains both breathing problems and as well as fingering. 136 begins the recapitulation and of course, it is not a literal repeat of the initial material, but it does share many passages both from the first and second themes. In bar 185 it will be necessary to practise this with the piano a number of times. Here is the problem: the piano has the same melody as the clarinet, however it moves in groups of three 16th, while the clarinet moves in quarters, a traditionally impossible spot that is sometimes glossed over with pedal, or what have you. It is very difficult for the keyboard player, concerto difficulty, while the clarinetist has simple notes, a large difference seldom noticed by the clarinetist unfortunately.

There is a short transition to the lovely coda of this movement, another potentially difficulty in breathing and phrasing for the clarinet. Please mark your breaths prior to rehearsing with your accompanist, for if played perfectly together, this will leave a memorable impression upon the listener.

Second Movement, “Andante un poco Adagio”
One finds here a traditional difference of opinion because there are really two different implications of tempo and no metronome mark. They may be played at either 88 for the eighth note (approximately) or at 60 or less for the quarter note. That is a difference of tempo, a considerable one, however one finds that after playing the work a number of times, it is the implication of a moving yet slow basic pulse which is the point here. If one takes literally the word “andante”, or a walking tempo, it is an incorrect interpretation. Why? Because Brahms adds un poco Adagio and there is the concern. Consider it as a slow andante and think always of the eighth note and you will interpret correctly. It will take a while to settle on the correct tempo, however it is there to be found. It is in places like this second movement that the importance of performing this work with a fine partner is so important. It is never an accompanists job, it is more of a true collaboration.

Third Movement, “Minuet and trio, da capo”
The third movement is usually thought of as a slow scherzo. It works best played in a delicate pianissimo one measure to the bar, straight through, with all repeats, making certain that all dynamics are right in place. The form here is Minuet, Trio and da capo, a very typically classical movement. Please take special care to interpret the “teneremente” of the recapitulation of the minuet carefully, perhaps a trifle slower and quite pure in sound. It then proceeds to the original tempo to conclude this movement.

Fourth Movement, “Finale-Vivace”
Another ambiguity is found here and that is the fact that it is marked “vivace” but it is also marked in 4/4 time. One usually takes this route … “Oh, Brahms didn’t mean this, he meant alla breve, or the half note gets the beat” … Well, do not be too sure of that. If you allow the pianist to play this movement at around 82 and up for the half note, there are going to be serious problems for both players, having to do with rushing an obliteration of the composers intent. Only at bar 174 may you let go, so to speak until the end, and achieve the feeling of completion and vivace for this exciting finale.
Sherman Friedland


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: