When he was 58, Brahms indicated in his will that he would compose no more, he would be retiring. But the best-laid plans… This one was set aside because of the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whom Brahms had heard on a visit to Meiningen. Mühlfeld’s playing clearly renewed in Brahms the desire to compose, and barely two months after he had drawn his will, he was sending the score of the Clarinet Trio to his devoted young friend, Eusebius Mandyczewski (‘Mandy,’ librarian of the Museum of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde). In the same summer, he composed the Clarinet Quintet, and in 1894, the two Clarinet Sonatas. Thus, the “dear nightingale” – as Brahms referred to Mühlfeld – goes down in history as the person without whom four of the composer’s most touching and beautiful ‘twilight’ works would not have been written.
In all four compositions, the lyrical and technical possibilities of the clarinet are exploited to the fullest. Commenting in a letter to Brahms about the Trio, Mandy said, “The inventive conception of the themes, born of the spirit of the wind instrument and, more especially, the harmonious blending of the tones of the clarinet and the cello, are magnificent; it is as though the instruments were in love with each other.” The romance, which starts immediately with a phrase by cello alone answered by the clarinet, expectedly finds the wind the more voluble of the pair, with the keyboard participating as a chamber music equal. After all, although he wrote the Trio as a showcase for Mühlfeld’s artistry, Brahms was too much an artist himself to compromise his integrity by writing, as it were, a composition for clarinet with accompaniment. Yet, even in his first clarinet work, how wonderfully Brahms understood the instrument (with Mühlfeld’s help), its flexibility, and its timbre in its three distinct registers: the violin-like soprano, the full yet somewhat mysterious mid-range, and the dark and soulful chalumeau, the depth of which was the appropriate voice for Brahms’ resigned utterances.
The utterances in the Trio may not evolve as a cumulative statement as achingly beautiful as that of the Clarinet Quintet, but in their thematic and textural austerity they speak, even in their lighter moments, with a sobriety that tells everything about the composer’s state of world-weariness. The state of Brahms’ masterly craftsmanship is perfectly evident in the adept and knowing manipulation of materials, although the quality of the materials themselves indicates that, in spite of his enthusiasm for the clarinet, the composer was working at a hemidemisemiquaver less than optimum inspiration, the first movement excepted.
— Orrin Howard