Archive for the “Clarinet” Category
works by J. S. Bach, Olivier Messiaen, and David Sherr
Bel Air Jazz
Aria from J. S. Bach Cantata 56 (excerpt performed by The Bach Aria Group)
…then have I the Eagle’s Powers, then Soar I Up from this World,
Le merle noir,
Au revoir Merle noir,
Abí®me des oiseaux,
David Sherr and Olivier Messiaen
A Little Flight Music,
To the Muses,
The Bel Air Jazz Ensemble
This disc is, to be blunt, the damnedest thing. Things start out plain enough. A Bach aria begins to chug away but suddenly fades out into a woman speaking French. Various other languages and voices appear and disappear, making a melange of sound. The voices subside and then the Bach aria appears in improvisatory fragments in flute, vibraphone, piano, and bass. When the mellow sax solo takes over, you realize that you have no idea where this disc is going to take you next. It is, as I said before, the damnedest thing.
Messiaen gets the David Sherr treatment as well. Straightforward performances of La merle noir and Abí®me des oiseaux alternate with jazz-inspired works or improvisations of the same (in the case of Abí®me des oiseaux the improv stems from the Intermí¨de from the Quartet). This probably sounds like blaspheme and sacrilege to some. The kicker is: it works. David Sherr can make the Bel Air Jazz Ensemble sound like his music regardless the the music’s original DNA was Bach or Messiaen. To borrow from Homer Simpson, Otherworld Music is “sacrilicious.”
David Sherr’s music is equally beautiful when he is not functioning as a co-composer. The no-nonsense jazz style of A Little Flight Music is energetic but with a light touch. To the Muses is a soulful saxophone feature that oozes with gratitude and tenderness. If I could do what Sherr does, I’d be thanking the muses, too.
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MieczysÅ‚aw Weinberg: Concertos
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, Claes Gunnarsson, cello
Concerto No. 2 for Flute and Orchestra, Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra, Anders Jonhí¤ll, flute
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, Urban Claesson, clarinet
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund, conductor
These four concerti, all pristinely performed and recorded, are each full of passionate energy, be it somber and morose or playful and skippy. The language of each piece fits comfortably within the composer’s world of mid-20th century Russia. The overall musical style is a mixture of Shostakovich and Bartok. There are some slight allusions to Jewish folk music as well.
The Fantasia for cello and orchestra starts with low, rich string tones and a serious, achingly beautiful melody in the cello. Claes Gunnarsson seems to draw heartbreak from each note. When things speed up, the dance feeling is infectious and I cannot sit still when I listen to it. The slower, somber mood returns at the end for a plaintive and serene close.
Both of the flute concerti contain the same sweet and sorrow moods found in the Fantasia. In this premiere recording of the second concerto, the first movement is rather understated. There are some flute fireworks, but the general tone of the piece is subdued. The Largo movement is restless and troubled. You can tell that the flute wants to be serene, but a darkness permeates the movement and keeps the lyrical soloist in slightly disturbed places. The final movement seems to cast this darkness aside and revel in a playful dance. Again, my feet can’t keep still during this final movement.
The Concerto for Flute and Strings (aka Concerto No. 1), is frenetic with energy and drive. In the first movement, the flute is a force to be reckoned with, constantly pushing the string orchestra forward. This Largo movement is much simpler in texture than the as the slow movement of the Concerto No. 2. The flute is the clear dominant voice, but again Anders Jonhí¤ll is playing a dark and mournful tune. The work finishes off with another dance-inspired movement, ending with a rather abrupt and frantic push.
The Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, also receiving its premiere recording, follows many of the other concerti’s patterns. The first movement is slightly aggressive with the soloist pushing the ensemble forward. The middle movement is slow and lyrical, but this time the clarinet seems to be in a much more contemplative space. There is less darkness surrounding the melody here. The ending movement is playful, skittering, and rhythmic. Urban Claesson sounds great throughout the work.
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Le livre des Mélancolies
Jean-Guy Boisvert, clarinet and Quatuor Bozzini
Jean-Guy Boisvert, clarinet and Quatuor Bozzini (Clemes Merkel, Nadia Francavilla, violins; Stéphanie Bozzini, viola; Isabelle Bozzini, cello)
…River to the Ocean…,
Le livre des Mélancolies,
These three works for clarinet and string quartet by contemporary Canadian composers (Grella-Mozejko was born in Poland but lives in Canada) are lithe and supple compositions which have been flawlessly executed by the performers. …River to the Ocean…
is a haunting and colorful journey with an organic formal process (even the jarringly bright major chords sound natural and justified, although surprising).
Le livre des Mélancolies is a more tangled and twisted chamber piece than its predecessor. The string quartet is more actively engaged with the clarinet sound which makes the clarinet feel less like a soloist and more like another timbral possibility of the ensemble. Speaking of colors, they abound in this work (and the disc as a whole). Each of the three movements stays in a largely meditative emotional space, although each does so in its own sumptuous manner.
The four movement Slow Dances harnesses more direct energy than the previous two pieces. Especially in the second movement, “A Sort of Tango,” there is finally some aggression and power to jar me out of the haze created by the earlier pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I was in a blissful sort of absinthe haze. It was nice to be shaken out of it by a tango (of any sort).
Each of these three pieces is performed with great care, color, and musicality. Quatuor Bozzini makes easy work of the constantly shifting timbral demands in each piece and Jean-Guy Boisvert matches the ensemble at every single point along the way.
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EARNEST: Winter Dances; The Blue Estuaries; Trois Morceaux. Judith Kellock, soprano; Mariam Adam, clarinet; Peter Sanders, cello; Evelyn Ulex, piano; Hrabba Atladottir, violin; Ensemble X/Sebastian Gottschalk. Koch 7555. 53 minutes.
John David Earnest has devoted most of his long compositional career to music for orchestra, song cycles, and choral music. The current disc contains about half of his chamber music. The music here is accessible, but not without some harmonic and (especially) rhythmic bite.
All of this music is exceptionally well-written. The instruments sound great””in fact, the music is probably easier to play than it sounds, and performers love that. The forms are simple, direct, and clearly-articulated. In fact, Earnest’s skill as a composer raises the craft itself to an expressive element of the music. It’s a case where the technique so identifies with the content that quality of the work translates into expression. Earnest’s harmony is tonal, but not diatonic, and his rhythmic style is flexibly pulse-y, with shifting accents and changing meters.
The performances are very good, with the players responding to their parts with style and skill. Soprano Judith Kellock delivers the vocal part in The Blue Estuaries in a rich, full soprano voice and with solid diction and a good sense of phrase. Koch’s production is very clean, with good balance.
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RICHARDS: finalbells; time’s racing; My Great-aunt Julia; Conch Music; harte’s bels; The Bells Themselves: Jonathan Edwards and the American Songbook; Chicken Pull. Alan Zimmerman, cowbells; Kay Stonefelt, percussion; David Keck, bass-baritone; Paul Schiavo, oboe; Greg Purnhagen, baritone; Paul Marquardt, piano; Molly Paccione, clarinet; Adam Alter, bass clarinet; Eric Richards, whistler. New World 80673-2. 67 minutes.
[Disclaimer: I've known Molly Paccione (clarinet) and Paul Paccione (annotator) for many years. They introduced me to Eric Richards and his music back in 1993. I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to write a little bit about it]
The music of Eric Richards creates and gives life to an original soundworld unlike any I have ever encountered before. It is a soundworld of space, quietude, and expressive power.
Richards’ music is private in the same way that great string quartets are, probing and introspective, yet it is open and even accessible, in the best sense of that often abused word and idea. The music’s introspection is dramatically expressed by Richards’ characteristic scoring for groups of identical instruments, with most of the parts pre-recorded for performance by a soloist who then plays a part accompanied by the tape of herself playing the other parts.
The most extreme example of this procedure is Chicken Pull, for 72 clarinet parts and 4 whistlers. Molly Paccione (clarinet), Adam Alter (bass clarinet), and the composer (whistling), is a quietly teeming piece based on recordings of classic blues introductions, transcribed and rewritten. Chicken Pull is also characteristic of Richards’ work through its use of other types of music to create new sounds and forms.
In some pieces these found musical objects are placed in opposition to extramusical ideas. In The Bells Themselves: Jonathan Edwards and the American Songbook (for three pianos, with Paul Marquardt performing all three parts), abstracted bits of American show tunes are juxtaposed with the brimstone warnings of the titular Puritan preacher. The urgency of the playing and the increasing layering of the fragments as the piece progresses express a life and death struggle like those in Edwards’ sermons.
The vocal pieces on the program, My Great-aunt Julia (sung with conviction by David Keck) and harte’s bels (all five parts sung by Greg Purnhagen) reflect Richards’ e pluribus unum aesthetic in different ways. The baritone in harte’s bels accompanies himself on tape while the bass-baritone in My Great-aunt Julia gives an illusion of multiplicity through rapid juxtapositions of fragments in widely divergent registers.
finalbells, time’s racing, and Conch Music all explore various kinds of resonance””cowbells, percussion, and oboe sounds respectively. Like the other pieces on this remarkable disc, they make oblique reference to other musics or soundworlds. The performances are sensitive and musical.
I can’t give this disc any higher recommendation for those interested in absorbing, original, and thoroughly contemporary music.
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LEISNER: Acrobats; El Coco; Nostalgia; Dances in the Madhouse; Trittico; Extremes. Cavatina Duo (Denis Azabagic, guitar, Eugenia Moliner, flute); Katinka Klein, cello; Joshua Rubin, clarinet. Cedille 90000 096. 60 minutes.
Flute and guitar. The pairing suggests fleetness of foot and lightness of touch, a kind of instrumental Fred and Ginger. Acrobats, a collection of music for flute and guitar (with the occasional addition of cello or clarinet) by David Leisner, fulfills this image/expectation in clear and often intriguing ways.
Leisner’s music is direct and accessible without sacrificing expressivity. The composer has a firm but flexible grasp on tonal harmony and rhythm, especially dance rhythms. The instruments are shown off to great effect””the music really sounds.
Denis Azabagic (guitar) and Eugenia Moliner (flute), comprising the Cavatina Duo, are excellent instrumentalists and sensitive musicians. Their playing is clean and expressive. They are joined by Katinka Klein (cello) and Joshua Rubin (clarinet), both fine players in their own right.
This is well-made music, lovingly played and recorded.
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Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies, Bedtime Stories
Roger Heaton, clarinet
The title begs the question, of course. When can a melody meaningfully be described as “rational”? Are the passages of (in retrospect) textbook species counterpoint in Palestrina rational? The mad twitchings of Boulez’s Structures Ia? The self-similar patterns of John Luther Adams’ air-raid sirens? The additive processes of Glass’ Music in Fifths?
A good deal of Tom Johnson‘s compositional history has been devoted to posing that very question, and British clarinetist Roger Heaton’s performance of this selection from the ever-growing set of Rational Melodies does so in particularly beguiling form. These are pretty, songful little tunes, most under two minutes in length, generally consisting of patterns that repeat according to simple and immediately comprehensible schemes of addition, subtraction, or step-by-step transformation. Heaton, recorded in a beautifully resonant acoustic, plays these little tunes innocently, like lullabies or improvised little childrens’ tunes.
As always with Johnson, though, the overt rationality of these pieces””their transparent dependency on logical systems””is more complex than it seems. As was the case with another disc of Johnson’s music I reviewed recently, the extremely strict formal constraints still leave room for a lot of conscious, intuitive, “creative” decision-making, and here those decisions are made in a way that complicates things significantly. Almost all of these melodies are simply conjunct or triadic, and most of them have tonal implications. “Tonal implications,” of course, is shorthand for a whole universe of implications, tendencies, expectations, weightings of possibilities emanating from every pitch. Even the smallest musical event presents a welter of little arrows pointing to a universe of subsequent options, each with their own reasons and consequences, none of which have anything to do with the ostensible “rational” method of construction.
In the tenth selection here, for example (the Rational Melodies may be played as any subset of their complete number, in any order), a simple arpeggiated figure in A flat major is transformed through a simple nested pattern of downward semitonal shifts, but jostling for the listener’s attention alongside that self-similar pattern is a whole kaleidoscope of tonal relations, a complex harmonic structure rivaling anything in Wagner or Strauss, that bursts forth unbidden purely as the result of Johnson’s irrational choice of pitches.
These are unanswerable questions. They are asked here, though, with a dainty sort of gracefulness. Rarely are such profound critiques of the nature of human creativity asked in a way that is so easy on the ear.
The rest of the disc is filled by Bedtime Stories, for clarinet and a narrating clarinetist. This piece has had a colorful history on radio, including productions involving recordings of the composer snoring and a young girl counting (sheep, presumably). Here we have a set of twelve of Johnson’s absurdist narratives, the sort that occur again and again in widely varying contexts in his work, from the Four-Note Opera to Failing: a Very Difficult Piece for String Bass, with simple little clarinet figures interspersed that have a broadly abstract illustrative function. The various ways of seating guests at a dinner party, for example, are illustrated by different permutations of an eight-note whole-tone set; one story consists entirely of a man trying to put together a “Chinese puzzle”; the words “but that didn’t work, so he tried it another way” are repeated over and over, followed after each repetition by another arrangement of a small set of widely spaced pitches. It ends when “he finally gave up.”
This is wonderful stuff. Not only should Bedtime Stories be played by young clarinet students the world over””it would be an absolute smash in student recitals, and is easily playable by those with limited technical abilities; it, along with the Rational Melodies, highlight the whimsical nature of Johnson’s intentionally naí¯ve approach to music. His methods of composition are those of a wide-eyed child, innocent and delighting in every “accidental” discovery, and nowhere is that clearer than in these utterly charming pieces.
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