Contrechant
Reto Bieri, clarinet
Works by Berio, Carter, Eötvös, Holliger, Sciarrino, and Vajda

ECM New Series CD 2209

One of the best recital discs I heard in 2011 did not feature an instrument typically associated with the genre. Contrechant is a disc comprised of all contemporary works performed by Swiss clarinetist Reto Bieri. All solos: no piano accompaniment or contributions from other instrumentalists. But the proceedings are hardly monophonic or monochromatic. Even Luciano Berio’s  Lied (1983), which opens the disc with a phrase or so gently articulated “song-like” melody, does not remain a “single line” piece for long: this texture is complicated by repeated note ostinati and wide-ranging leaps.  While Lied isn’t as hypervirtuosic as the clarinet Sequenza, it proves to be an elegant introduction to the rigorous material that will be found on the disc, as well as the formidable technical skill and focused interpretative powers possessed by Bieri. Indeed, Contrechant is a showcase for the clarinet’s versatility and its extensive repertoire of extended techniques.

A case in point is “Lightshadow-trembling,” by Hungarian (now residing in the US) composer, conductor, and clarinetist Gergely Vajda. The piece spends a great deal of its duration requiring the clarinetist to perform pedal tones in conjunction with a compound melody and copious trilling, creating a far denser texture than many listeners would assume possible when presented with the mislabel “single line instrument.” After this sustained, breathless (or, rather, circular breathed) flurry, late in the piece, Vajda allows the clarinetist to attack single sustained notes: the resultant starkness is startling. This was the first piece I’ve heard from Vajda: I look forward to hearing more.

One of Vajda’s teachers, the acclaimed composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, contributes a very different work: Derwischtánz. It is lyrical and questing, with beautiful runs that start in the chalumeau register and cascade up to long, sustained, pianissimo notes in the instrument’s upper register to end each phrase. A few trills at the work’s close seem to serve as foreshadowing for Vajda’s later perambulations.

“Let me die before I wake,” by Salvatore Sciarrino revels in extended techniques, such as  multiphonics and whistle tones. But these never seem gimmicky; instead they give the clarinet an otherworldly, “sci-fi” ambiance that is quite haunting. Virtuoso oboist and composer Heinz Holliger knows a thing or two about wind instruments. His Contrechant (2007) cast in five short movements, takes up where Sciarrino leaves off, putting the clarinet through its paces, including extraordinary measures: slap tonguing, extended glissandi, vocalizations, microtones, and  altissimo register squalls. It is a bracing, yet dramatically compelling, ultra-modernist composition. More reflective, although still possessing considerable angularity and a wildly shifting demeanor, is Rechant (2008), a through-composed companion piece.

This is Bieri’s second recording of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993), one of the ‘early’ works of the now 103 year-old composer’s ‘late’ period. It is one of a number of relatively brief single movement piecess that Carter penned during the 90s and 00s and, I believe, one of his best. In Gra, for the most part  Carter eschews the special effects employed by the aforementioned composers; he instead displays absolute command, both of the instrument’s idiomatic capabilities and of a rigorously compressed harmonic and gestural language. The piece’s exquisite pacing and, for Carter, relatively new found directness of expression, make it one of the great works for solo clarinet. Since his first recording of the piece, Bieri’s interpretation has grown, is ever more sure-footed and specific in all of its details: I’m glad he recorded it a second time. Let’s hope ECM invites him back to make another CD. Pairing him with one of the label’s many talented pianists could make for a deadly duo disc.

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