Wednesday, March 1, 2017


Morse Recital Hall, Yale University
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vincent P. de Luise, M.D.

The extraordinary story of Johannes Brahms, the clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld and the autumnal beauty that are the Brahms Op 114 Trio, the ineffable quintet Op 115 and the valedictory Op 120 sonatas, were elegant brought to life this evening in Harry Clarke's wonderfully crafted paean to Brahms and Muhlfeld, "An Unlikely Muse," in Morse Recital Hall at Yale University.
Johannes Brahms in 1885, at 52 years of age

Featuring one of the world's greatest clarinetists (and an incredibly nice person) David Shifrin, star pianist Melvin Chen, the brilliant violinist Ani Kafavian, the superb violist Ettore Causa, Julie Eskar (Danish chamber Symphony) second violin, Ole Akahoshi cello, and the stentorian oratory of narrator, Broadway and TV star, Jack Gilpin, it was an evening of clarinet heaven, not only for me but for the fortunate 500 in attendance at Morse Recital Hall at Yale.
Whole movements and some excerpts from virtually all the mountaintops for the clarinet (the Brahms trio, quintet and sonatas, the Schumann Fantasiestucke, the first Weber Concerto, Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and even the adagio from the Mozart Concerto) were interwoven within the narrative of how Brahms first met Muhlfeld and how that inspired him to compose again. 
All was magisterially scaled by Shifrin, whose full and centered tone were a result of both his supreme talent and the cocobolo clarinets he played, crafted by Morrie Backun, the Vancouver Instrument maker who is revolutionizing the sound quality and intonation of our instrument.
Richard Muhlfeld in 1886

There were moments of joy of course, (yes, even with Brahms there is occasional joy), but more of tears, it was that compelling. I have studied, still study, and have performed these clarinet masterpieces, practicing parts of them every day. I know them like the back of my hand (I guess that makes sense because parts of them are now "muscle memory" ). 

And yet, when chamber music is played by artists of this caliber, musicians with consummate talent who share the joy and the intense focus required of Kammermusik at the highest level, the results are blissful .
There are really no words - just feelings. How can one describe the ineffable Art of Music in words?
Those moments of rapture became manifest not only when Shifrin played, but also when Chen took us to another sound world with excerpts from the intimate Brahms Intermezzi from Op 117, 118 and 119.
And how perfect they were! 

The intermezzi were written chronologically in between the trio, quintet and the two sonatas; they were to be Brahms' valedictory to the piano as well. Brahms dedicated the particularly tender Op. 118 intermezzi to his lifelong love, Clara Schumann, They, like the clarinet works, are emblematic of late Brahms: melody triumphs over dense chromaticism, even with typical Brahms rhythmic instability (stressing the second and third beats of a measure and nit the downbeat), there is always a crystalline clarity and a measured tempo overarching each moment, the music being a distillation of his life, his modernism and at once his faithfulness to a musical vernacular that Mozart and Beethoven would have understood. Not one note is unnecessary. Brahms tells his stories in music with an economy and concision in which what he does not say is as meaningful as what he conveys.
Brahms wrote all this beauty toward the end of his life, coming out of retirement to compose these swansongs, and all because of the rare and sublime Sound World crafted on the clarinet by his inspirational muse, Richard Muhlfeld.

Muhlfeld and Brahms in 1891

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