The 1889 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes the following: “Wind instruments are now out of fashion for concert-playing, and one seldom hears anything on such occasions but the piano or violin, instead of the pleasing variety which used to prevail with so much advantage to art.” Despite the prominence of the clarinet in the orchestra of the Romantic era, its eminence in chamber music had been in a state of decline for a number of years. But during the 1890s, Brahms embarked upon a quartet of works—two sonatas, a trio, and a quintet—that would result in a new level of respect for the clarinet. His sonatas were the first chamber works for the clarinet by a major composer since Weber and Mendelssohn were inspired by the consummate artistry of Heinrich Bärmann and his gifted son Carl.

During his career, Brahms surely encountered the playing of a variety of clarinetists, since his orchestral works were premiered in a number of locales. But in July of 1891, he wrote to Clara Schumann that “the clarinetists in Vienna and many other places are fairly good in the orchestra, but, as soloists, give no one real pleasure.” His opinion would change dramatically as the result of his association with conductor Fritz Steinbach and the Meiningen Orchestra. It was there that Brahms first heard clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and was captivated by his playing. Brahms even called the clarinetist the orchestra’s nightingale.

Unfortunately, other musicians did not share Brahms’s enthusiasm. Vaughan Williams heard Mühlfeld and his English counterpart Charles Draper, and though he admired the German’s tone, Vaughan Williams affirmed that it was Draper who found the true quality of the instrument. Lest we dismiss this as English posturing, Friedrich Buxbaum, who played the Brahms clarinet trio with Mühlfeld, stated in 1940 that in 1890s Vienna there were many clarinetists who could eclipse Mühlfeld. Nevertheless, Brahms’s inspiration was heartfelt, and the four works he produced for Mühlfeld during the autumn of his life have outlasted the debate concerning Mühlfeld’s merits or lack of them.

In the trio—as in the quintet that would follow it—Brahms opted for the darker-toned clarinet pitched in A, and grasped the opulent range of the instrument with complete assurance. He used the potential for cantilena and fluency while carefully avoiding the temptation to create a miniature concerto. The trio evinces all the restraint, resource, and subtlety of Brahms’s late style and is fueled by the distinctively different timbres of the different instruments. The musical personalities and characteristics of the instruments are expertly balanced and exploited with no apparent fetters upon Brahms’s natural expression as a pianist. The clarinet and cello seem ideally suited to the tonal reserve of the aging composer and his desire to avoid anything extreme—to wit: Brahms rarely asks for a fortissimo and he also sidesteps extreme tempos. Even though the composer was to live for another three years, quietude and moderation prevail here as if they were underscoring Brahms’s recognition of and resignation to his impending end. With its carefully planned architectonic and melodic structure, the trio also exhibits an economy of form that exhibits Brahms’s rejection of compositional indulgence.

The talents of a gifted clarinetist, specifically one Josef Bähr (1770–1819), also influenced Beethoven. With the exception of Beethoven’s three duets for clarinet and bassoon, the rondino and octet—both scored for the basic Harmonie configuration of paired oboes, clarinet, horns, and bassoons—Beethoven’s solo clarinet parts in the trio, sextet, and septet—written between 1792 and 1802—were for Bähr. He was empowered with much talent and a review of Beethoven’s sextet printed by the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung stated that “this artist possesses, in addition to extraordinary facility and assurance, an extremely charming and agreeable tone, and he is able, especially in the piano passages, to make it so melting, tender, and touchingly delicate . . . ”. The trio, which uses the more common clarinet in B ♭ , dates from 1798. At the request of Bähr, Beethoven used a melody from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’amor marinaro as the basis of the variations that constitute the final movement. Beethoven is reported to have later expressed regret concerning this decision, since he felt the choice lowered the overall quality of the trio. Although written for the same combination of instruments as the Brahms trio, this youthful work by Beethoven is at the other end of the spectrum.

In addition to the decades on the time line of music history that separate it stylistically from its discmate, Beethoven’s op. 11 is also the emotional antithesis of the Brahms. Beethoven’s trio is full of youthful optimism and vigor and also holds hints of the young lion that would soon begin to flex his muscles and reshape musical thinking for generations to come. Structurally, the trio is a youthful masterpiece that demonstrates an exceptional degree of intercourse at every turn. By the late 1790s, the genre had developed substantially from its beginnings earlier in the Classical era, and the young composer’s understandably confident treatment of the piano and his assured handling of the clarinet and cello display an amazing grasp of the unique lyrical and technical qualities possessed by each instrument.

The Brahms and Beethoven works are available in many excellent recordings and are both near and dear to my heart as I performed them in concert as well as at evenings of Hausmusik in the halcyon days of my youth. My matched set of Buffet clarinets was set aside over a quarter century ago in favor of the microphone, but I still maintain an active interest in recordings and repertoire for my former instrument. So much for my waxing nostalgic. I am always pleased to greet the infrequent new arrival that offers these compositions. Unlike the Brahms and Beethoven, however, the trio by Hugh Wood (b. 1932) takes its first bows here; it is the world premiere recording.

Wood’s treatment of the protagonists is diametrically different from both Brahms and Beethoven. He has graciously provided his own notes for the three-movement work, which I excerpt here: “The opening . . . concentrates on the members of the trio as solo instrumentalists. Thus there are long solos for each instrumentalist in turn . . . the melodies are prolonged and elaborated rather than developed.” Wood opted for a Scherzo-march as the second movement: “There are five ‘characters’ presented quite quickly at the beginning and they seem at first to be identified with particular instruments, but the story of the movement is that of their presentation in different forms and on other instruments.” This material is supplemented by “a sixth [and] more lyrical theme . . . [that] comes to the fore in mid-movement . . . between cello and clarinet, the cello leading.” The finale, according to Wood, is a slow movement “intended as a memorial tribute to two friends who died in 1997.”

We learn from the notes that the Trio Gemelli members (John Bradbury, clarinet; Adrian Bradbury, cello; Amy Siegel, piano) have been performing together since 1994. John and Adrian are identical twins—hence the name Trio Gemelli—and the sons of British clarinetist Colin Bradbury. The bloodline of the Bradburys aside, these are three fine young musicians who possess all of the requisite skills to master their instruments. Their musical personalities are well suited to this diverse repertoire and they evince a deep understanding and immediate command of each work. From the relatively lighthearted character of the Beethoven through the reserved and autumnal Brahms, to the technically demanding as well as emotionally consuming quality of the somewhat quirky Wood, the Trio Gemelli consistently held my attention via their wide range of fervent expression and flawless technique. The performances also radiate a sumptuous tonal quality and show meticulous attention to phrasing, carefully shaped melodic lines, and well-shaded dynamics. The overall presentation is quite exceptional in every aspect, including the sound proffered by Divine Art: it is honest, crystal clear, and well blended.

There is one regret, however, and that is not having been acquainted with these performers previously.

—Michael Carter