About this work
After finishing the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 in 1888, Johannes Brahms returned to the duo sonata just once more; in 1894, in quick succession, he composed a pair of sonatas for clarinet (or viola) and piano that were published together the following year as Op. 120. The dedicatee of these two works was the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing had been an inspiration to the aging Brahms. The two Op. 120 sonatas, the first of which is in F minor, the second of which is in E flat major, are as like to one another as peas in a pod: rich-textured; songful, indeed, more truly songful than any of the string sonatas, partly by reason of the clarinettist's need to breathe; and not at all filled with the kind of hair-raising drama that has made the D minor Violin Sonata so famous. Because of their opposite modalities, they complement one another as perfectly as do the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture of 15 years earlier.
The No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120 has three movements: Allegro amabile, Allegro appassionato-sosteneto, and Andante con moto-Allegro-Più tranquillo. The wealth of long-limbed, lyrical melody in the opening and closing movements led Brahms to abandon the idea of a slow movement in favor of a scherzo-type middle movement in E flat minor; the central trio section, a B major Sostenuto ("ma dolce e ben cantando"), serves nicely to fill the gap left by that missing slow movement. The finale is a theme and variations in which the clarinet and piano join together to spin yard after yard of silken, overlapping, arpeggiated spiderwebs.