Clarinetist David Shifrin’s tone is liquid, ravishing, polished free of every edge. His staccato has no dangerous sharpness, each note standing separate and smooth like water beading on a waxed car. He appeared at Jordan Hall Friday night in the Celebrity Series, joined by pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel in a collection of clarinet trios. This distinctive musicianship, both soothing and gently ravishing, made for a fine if somewhat distant reading of the Brahms Clarinet Trio, from 1892, the concluding work on the program and also the most significant.
Nearly all of the great works for clarinet have come into being thanks to composers who encounter great players: for Mozart it was Anton Stadler, for Nielsen Aage Oxenvad. Brahms’s muse was Richard Mühlfeld, also responsible for the Clarinet Quintet, written almost at the same time, and the Op. 120 sonatas. Brahms met Mühlfeld late in his career, after an ostensible retirement. The pieces lack the immense depth and impeccable craftsmanship of “preretirement” Brahms: in their place is a simplicity of means and a peculiar melancholy universally termed autumnal. In the hands of Shifrin, Han, and Finckel, the Trio unfolded in layers of beautifully realized melody. The first movement Allegro was brooding and calm, the third movement triple-time Andante grazioso coy and amiable. It was a velvety performance, gorgeous but a bit diffuse. The first movement contains intimations of threat and turbulence that here kay so distant as to be missed; the dance rhythm of the Andante were so fluid as to hide the beat. The concluding Allegro’s storms were also cushioned for us, the angularity of the lines translated into a pleasant rocking—not lulling, but not calculated to disturb either. The players were clearly locked onto one another and were of one mind. They employed an almost continuous rubato, which did not italicize, having the gentle changing cadence of slow breathing during a pleasant dream. Han’s playing was warm and deferential for the most part; at times Shifrin’s lines disappeared in the mix, but that sounded like his choice, not her insistence. Finckel’s playing was more aggressive, and what outright passion heard in the performance came from him. He produced a strong and insistent tone, with a welcome if somewhat ironically reedy edge to it, an edge not heard from Shifrin.
Something similar was achieved in the four selections from Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83, but with lesser musical material. The opening “Nachtgesang” (originally the sixth of the eight) is a long spunout example of attractive late Romantic melody; the Allegro con moto (originally second) presents something similar but more muscular and insistent, over a rippling piano accompaniment that calls to mind the notier Chopin Preludes. The Andante con moto is a dialogue, with an agitated cello proclaiming recitatives answered by gentle arcing lines in the clarinet. The Allegro vivace (seventh) is the only major-key movement, whose light and charming triple-time Mendelssohnian sound world was welcome refreshment after the gloomy character of the previous movements. There were much tonal richness and craftsmanship on display, and the third movement’s interplay was well-cast. The evening’s encore, an arrangement of the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1, was similarly pleasing to the ear, although it did a better job of recalling the original than making a clear case for its new form.
However, the beauty and craftsmanship at work in Brahms and Bruch were not what the opening work, Beethoven’s early Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 11, needed. From 1798, it is constructed out of a grab bag of material ranging in quality from a stirring but obvious opening to a quite pretty arch-shaped theme in the second movement to the likable but rather stupid theme taken from an aria by Joseph Weigl to produce the third movement’s variations. There’s quite a lot of lockstep imitation, and while the brief development of the first movement is in a novel key, and its repeated arpeggiations call to mind the magic the composer would later work with repetition (I’m thinking of the development in the Sixth Symphony, for instance), the piece lacks his mature magic. That said, it still features the composer’s big personality. It needs some boisterousness and blunt humor to conjure up any Beethovenian heat, and a little heart on the sleeve will not do the second movement any harm. The fine but emotionally detached workmanship provided by the players didn’t meet the piece halfway, so it rather withered on the vine.