New Classical Tracks: Clarinetist Jonathan Cohler

Jonathan Cohler & Claremont Trio
Jonathan Cohler & Claremont Trio: Beethoven, Brahms, Dohnanyi.
Photo courtesy the artist

Cohler was 30 years old before deciding to make music his full-time vocation. By then he was already conducting, and on the faculty at New England Conservatory of Music.

Cohler's newest CD on his own record label, Ongaku (the Japanese word for "music"), features him performing Beethoven, Brahms and Dohnanyi with the Claremont Trio.

Beethoven's Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 11, was written for the Viennese clarinetist Joseph Bahr. It was Bahr who suggested the theme, which comes from a popular opera by Joseph Weigl titled "Love at Sea."

The tune is from a light-hearted trio for three basses that begins with the line, "Before we work, we must have something to eat." This breezy, animated mood is also reflected in Beethoven's quick tempos.

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While most perform Beethoven's trio at a tempo slower than its original marking -- sometimes 40 percent slower -- Jonathan Cohler and the Claremont Trio chose the incredibly fast tempo the composer intended. The first movement of this trio sparkles with excitement.

Like Beethoven, Brahms was also inspired by a virtuoso performer. Richard Muhlfeld was a member of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Muhlfeld's soulful playing literally pulled Brahms out of retirement.

At age 57, the composer had decided to hang up his composing pen. After hearing Muhlfeld perform, Brahms fell in love with the clarinet, and wrote two works for the virtuoso in the span of two months. It was Muhlfeld's expressive playing with the use of vibrato that caught the ear of Brahms.

Few clarinetists use vibrato today, but Jonathan Cohler believes you have to play this work with vibrato to capture the sound that moved Brahms to compose the work in the first place. Cohler's subtle vibrato allows for broader expression in the adagio movement of the Clarinet Trio.

Johannes Brahms became a mentor for a young Hungarian pianist-composer named Ernst von Dohnanyi, after hearing a piano quintet written by the young student in 1895. Dohnanyi did perform for Brahms before for the elder composer died in 1897.

His Sextet in C Major for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Horn is a gorgeous chamber work with a symphonic sound, written in 1935. Not only does it include the influence of Brahms, Johann Strauss and 19th century Vienna, there are elements of pop and jazz sprinkled in for good measure.

Jonathan Cohler, the Claremont Trio, James Sommerville (principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), and violist Mai Motobuchi stir up just the balance and energy in the final movement to enhance all these musical flavors.

Cohler is a clarinetist who thinks outside the box. When it comes to making music, he follows his instincts.

On this new recording with Cohler and the Claremont Trio, (featuring twin sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin with pianist Donna Kwong), his instincts are spot-on. The repertoire is interesting, the presentation is unique, and the performers are exceptional.