In 1900, Max Reger heard Brahms’ Op. 120 clarinet sonatas for the first time. According to one of the performers, he said, ‘Fine, I am also going to write two such things.’ Three weeks later, Reger’s Op. 49 clarinet sonatas were completed.
As one might expect, these sonatas are very similar to Brahms’, both in structure and harmonic language. I have heard performances of these works that emphasize that connection. Clarinetist Alan R. Kay and pianist Jon Klibonoff take a different tack.
It’s difficult for me to put into words exactly what they do with these sonatas, but here goes. To my ears, Kay and Klibonoff seem to move the Brahmsian influences more to the background and bring Reger’s own voice to the forefront. It’s done in subtle ways; the phrasing is a little more aggressive, the dynamics perhaps a little more pronounced. Hard to describe, but for me, it works.
Reger revisited the genre in 1909 with what he called “a new crime against harmony and counterpoint.” The Op. 107 sonata is a more substantial work, and decidedly more adventurous harmonically. But in the end, as Reger wrote to a friend, “Brahms developed classic examples of what the style was meant to be like,” and so the sonata never strays too far into the avant-garde. The melodies do take full advantage of the advanced harmonies, creating some wonderfully evocative and poignant passages.
Kay and Klibonoff make a great team. I found their performances of these works to be engaging and true to Reger’s intentions with these compositions (as least as I perceived them).
My one complaint (and understand it’s a minor one) is that the clarinet at times has a slightly steely edge to it. I heard it even when the clarinet was playing in the lower register. That edge softened considerably when played through a higher quality audio system (your mileage may vary). What didn’t vary, though, were the quality of the performances. And that’s reason enough to add this release to your collection.
Max Reger: Music for Clarinet and Piano
Albumblatt, WoO II/13; Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 49, No. 1; Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 49, No. 2; Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 107; Tarantella, WoO II/12
Alan R. Kay, clarinet; Jon Klibonoff, piano