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In March 1891 Brahms visited Meiningen, where a private performance by the highly regarded clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld was arranged for the composer. Brahms was entranced with Mühlfeld’s sweet tone and moving interpretations and that summer he composed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. These works were premiered in Berlin that year with Mühlfeld in both works (with Brahms himself in the Trio and the Joachim Quartet in the Quintet). Their popular success was immediate (the Quintet had 50 performances in its first two seasons) and in 1894 Brahms composed two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, which he and Mühlfeld toured throughout Germany and Austria. Brahms was so pleased and impressed that he gave all the fees from their performances to Mühlfeld, as well as lifetime performing rights and the manuscripts of both sonatas.

The success of the music also led, inevitably in the publishing world of the time, to versions for different instrumentation, seeking as wide a share of the domestic music market as possible. In this case, Brahms himself arranged all four of those works with viola replacing the clarinet. (He also arranged the sonatas for violin and piano; other hands made additional versions of the works.)

In the Trio, it is the cello in any case that introduces both themes in the terse and tense opening movement. The viola twines around the cello, the play of light and dark in their duets subtle and expressive. The music seems to find benign – even cheerful – major-mode stability in closing, only to evaporate in oddly distracted running scales.

The viola does take the initial lead in the lovingly lyrical Adagio, though the ensemble give-and-take is superbly balanced. This is one of those late Brahms slow movements where the mood is so expansive that one can easily miss just how stringently efficient and effective it is in motivic compression and development.

The gracefully swaying Andantino grazioso recalls the Brahms of the Liebeslieder waltzes, in the utterly assured and sophisticated appropriation of a popular salon style.

Serious work is at hand in the finale, however, technically extroverted and metrically and harmonically unruly. The music quiets in an enigmatic sequence of descending hooks in the development section, but without losing any of its urgency. Taut fury returns soon, in the recapitulation, which drives to an abrupt, no-nonsense close.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.