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The Brahms Clarinet Sonatas have been close to my heart since diving headfirst into classical music as a teenager. I had a short text check in with my friend Wenzel Fuchs today to see how he was doing in Berlin, it got me thinking about these pieces and how much they’ve met to me over the years.

It really has nothing to do with my initiative. When I started working at a record store when I was 18, a customer (who remains a close friend 32 years later) recommended that I listen to these pieces, and he recommended that I listen to what was then a recent reissue of Richard Stoltzman and Richard Goode on RCA. I was hooked.

I would soon find out from my clarinet playing friends (I was also dating a clarinetist at the time) that this recording was generally poopood by clarinetists because Stoltzman used…wait for it…vibrato. I don’t think I could come up with a reasoned response, like, “but this is great music making!,” or something equally compelling. So, I diligently went to the catalog and started ordering every available recording. If you can believe it, in early 1989, there weren’t that many versions available, but be that as it may, the next recording I listened to and loved was Karl Leister and Gerhard Oppitz’s recording on Orfeo. And, Leister plays without that voodoo vibrato!

“Yeah, but the Germans don’t even play on the same system that we use here in the States and, look at his mouthpiece! He doesn’t even use a metal ligature! He just uses a black string to attach the reed to the clarinet! Blasphemy!” I’m paraphrasing, a little, and maybe adding some dialog from the Salem Witch Trials.

“You need to listen to the David Shifrin!”

By the way, notice how he sneaks in a little vibrato here and there…my thumb is on the end of my nose with fingers wagging…Anyway, that recording is great and he sounds fantastic, but what I never liked about it was how recessed the piano sounded. It sounds like the lid is on half-stick…which I hate.

And then there’s Reginald Kell…ahhh. The first thing that was reissued was his recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. And I know that this isn’t the piece I’m writing about, but everyone should hear this recording. I mean EVERYONE! (If there’s a link with better sound quality, let me know)

There’s that stinking vibrato again, but I simply stopped caring about it. Kell and Stoltzman are unbelievable musicians and I LOVE their playing. Period. Eventually, Kell’s recordings of the sonatas would be released,

but not after hearing so many other wonderful recordings, from Paul Meyer and Duchable’s incredibly passionate performances,

to Sabina Meyer (no relation) and Lars Vogt’s flowing and organic recording

to Martin Fröst’s very communicative and heartfelt recordings with Thedeen and Pöntinen

to a fantastic recording on period instruments with Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier on Harmonia Mundi.

For someone like me who grew up in a small Western town, I got to learn through these recordings about not only these unique compositions, written near the end of a great composer’s life, but about the history and style of clarinet playing throughout the 20th century. For an aspiring conductor this journey, and many others just like it, was so helpful in learning about the idiosyncrasies and traditions inherent in all instruments.

And, I discovered these great performances today!