Brahms: Sonatas for Clarinet & Piano, Op.120
Brahms originally conceived this music for clarinet, though he later adapted the pieces for viola. He was inspired by the artistic playing of clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld; he might well have felt the same way about Richard Stoltzman. Sometimes Stoltzman's playing can sound precious--save us all from his New Age recordings!--but here he plays like a great artist, floating the melodic lines up to heaven and never wimping out. In Richard Goode he has a pianist who is certainly an equal partner; strong, impulsive piano playing powers these performances. The disc's low price compensates for the short playing time. --Leslie Gerber
Many complain that Stoltzman doesn't get the nuance of Brahms music and that he over-plays... Frankly I don't see it. His playing exudes passion and fury in the more passionate moments of the Sonatas (1st mov. of Sonata 1 and 3rd mov. of Sonata 2 in particular). In the more delicate work (such as Sonata 1, mov. 2), Stoltzman's style (though less subtle than some) is engaging.
The best way I can describe these recordings (and much of Stoltzman's work) is that when I hear him play, I become absorbed in the music. I might admit that there are a few spots where one could argue that his vibrato could be toned down or something else like this, but this minor issues fail to subtract from the overall engrossing experience of listening to his playing. Other players (such as Wright) may play in a more reserved, traditional manner, but I can't get lost in their playing. It usually just leaves me luke warm.
No one CD is perfect, and you could pick apart a passage here or there on any recording by any artist. However, as an overall experience, I don't think you'll hear a more passionate or engaging Brahms than this recording. Those who listen to this recording and spend the whole time nit-picking minor things are missing the big picture (and it's a beautiful one).
I have the Stoltzman - Goode version of the two sonatas. These were recorded when both artists were very young and are both now highly respected artists who have continued to develop musically. But their effort of 30 years ago or so remains a jewel. I have four other versions of these sonatas played on the clarinet and two versions played on the viola. All are good, but the Stolzman - Goode version is the best of the clarinet sets.
Some of the reviewers here are critical of Stoltzman and claim he goes too far. But not everything needs to be played in the classical style of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven. Remember, the Opus 120 set was composed towards the end of Brahms life. He died in 1897. He is also considered a late Romantic composer. Writing music at the same time and continuing after his death was Gustav Mahler. And Schoenberg came right after. Stoltzman plays these sonatas just right for the time and the style. They are meant to be expressive and powerful pieces and that's the way they sound. I would recommend this set highly. I don't think it can be beat if you love Brahms and you love the Clarinet.
I should concede that in my opinion these performances don't quite match the nobility of feeling and phrasing I find on my old disc. But Stolzman and Goode fully satisfy my desire for performances that have heart, that are convincing, that convey something deeper than great technique. And the sound is all that I hoped for. It's not state-of-the-art; the clarinet is just a tiny bit more forward than I'd like, and the realism of current high-end recordings was not matched in 1981. But my goodness, this is RCA! It's very clean, clear (even when loud) and realistic--what a relief.
Don't forget that, as others have mentioned, this disc is only 45 minutes long. I got mine at a steep discount so I'm OK with that.