In our food-loving modern society, there are few limitations in the quest for ever-more exotic recipes, combinations of sometimes disparate ingredients that result in unique and engaging culinary experiences.
Yet, if a chef was to proclaim that he could create gastronomic utopia with only a lemon, a cauliflower, and a chocolate bar, more than a few eyebrows would be raised.
Surely it would take an astonishing level of ingenuity to produce a dish that was edible, let alone delectable.
Over the course of chamber music history, the clarinet trio has been in a situation not dissimilar to that of the three victuals mentioned above. All the instruments are derived from entirely different concepts of tone production and timbre, failing to attract and even resisting (as in the case of Faur’s Piano Trio) attempts from most composers of chamber music. However, despite valiant efforts from the likes of Bruch, Frhling, and Martinu, it was two of the great Teutonic ‘master chefs’ – Beethoven and Brahms – who demonstrated most effectively that the clarinet, ‘cello and piano could indeed be successfully amalgamated to produce a most tantalising concoction.
Of course, works of such distinctiveness and quality require equally distinguished performers to ensure they are delivered in a manner that justifies their place in the canon. Thankfully, the acclaimed Razumovsky Ensemble – whose members are specially selected for each concert by its founder and Artistic Director, ‘cellist Oleg Kogan – was on hand to deliver two excellent renditions.
The concert commenced with Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio, Op. 11, as competent an example as one will find of the composer’s early chamber music, full of his trademark drama and wit. Of the latter there was plenty, particularly in the final Allegretto. Each variation of the opening theme was brilliantly characterised, from the ghostly funeral march of No. 4 to the almost excessively cheeky interplay of No. 6. The preceding Adagio received a considered performance that hinted at Beethoven as the great trailblazer on music’s journey from Classicism to Romanticism. Kogan and clarinettist Michael Whight revelled in their melodic lines, and offset one another beautifully throughout.
There was much to admire in the first-movement Allegro con brio, which was full of charming rubato. Pianist Ronan O’Hora crafted a near-otherworldly aura at the start of both the second subject and the development, and coped admirably with a notoriously awkward piano score. It was here, however, that the aforementioned Beethovenian drama was lacking. The forthright statement of the opening bars could have been more arresting, while the fiery development section was somewhat clean-shaven and would have benefited from more raw passion on the part of all three musicians, particularly O’Hora in his driving semiquavers.
A shortage of passion was certainly not an issue in Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, Op. 118. The ensemble tackled this dense and rhythmically diverse score with great verve, producing an intense and vivid reading. Kogan was an ideal advocate of both principal themes in the opening Allegro, while Whight proved likewise in the opening melody of the luscious Adagio affettuoso. Both movements simply oozed romanticism, aided in large part by a fluency and oneness amongst the performers that was on a different level to that of the Beethoven. The gentle Allegro passionato was enchanting in its evocation of Viennese dance, though Whight could have allowed himself a greater dynamics threshold to match the tone production of Kogan. Though the concluding Allegro molto lacked the same conviction as its three predecessors it did not detract from a magnificent performance.
In between the Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios Kogan and Whight were each afforded an opportunity to feature in a duo with O’Hora. From an aural standpoint Kogan’s performance of the second Brahms ‘Cello Sonata, Op. 99, was exhilarating. His rich tone is ideally suited to the Wigmore Hall, easily filling the venue without ever being in danger of sounding forced. However, the visual experience was marred somewhat by Kogan’s rather suspicious over-reliance on the music which, when considered alongside the occasional yet noticeable erroneous notes during the first half, suggested perhaps a lack of preparation.
Whight impressed in Schumann’s Fantasiestcke, Op. 73, which opened the second half. This was an awe-inspiring interpretation that conjured up an unaffected sense of dreamlike fantasy and freedom. Whight’s imaginative and delicate turns of phrase, far from being pretentious and gimmicky, were driven solely by Schumann’s notes and the music within them. The only point at which the musicianship wavered was towards the end of the trio section in the second movement, which briefly lost its sense of direction. It should also be added that, in both the Schumann and the Brahms Sonata, Ronan O’Hora was a fine accompanist whose iridescent playing, unobtrusive yet ever-present, was a source of much enjoyment.