February 20, 2014
(++++) VOCALS WITHOUT VOICE
Hindemith: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor (Concerto); Ida Kavafian and Theodore Arm, violins, Steven Tenenbom, viola, and Fred Sherry, cello (Quintet); Yehudi Wyner, piano (Sonata). Navona. $16.99.
The Lyric Clarinet: Vocal Works Arranged for Clarinet and Piano. F. Gerard Errante, clarinet; Philip Fortenberry, Voltaire Verzosa and D. Gause, pianists. Ravello. $12.99.
Brian Noyes: Points of Decision; Shadows of Memory. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský (Points); St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Shadows). Navona. $14.99.
Marty Regan: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Volume 3—Scattering Light, Scattering Flowers. Navona. $14.99.
Gráinne Mulvey: Akanos and Other Works. Navona. $16.99.
The tone, timbre and range of the clarinet, from its highest register to its chalumeau depths, make the instrument a particularly adept one for imitating an idealized version of the human voice. And the clarinet’s fluidity – when it is expertly played – enhances the feeling of listening to warm and beautiful singing, at least when that is the experience a composer is trying to evoke. It would be exaggerating to suggest that Hindemith sought vocal-like beauty in his works for clarinet – he was more concerned with counterpoint and structural elements than with the instrument’s sound for its own sake – but Richard Stoltzman certainly extracts all the feeling that is present in the Concerto, Quintet and Sonata on a new Navona CD. Stoltzman has excellent breath control and produces a fine, even tone from his instrument, which cuts through Hindemith’s sometimes-dense scoring while at the same time fitting neatly into the sonic world that the composer sought to create. The Concerto, which Hindemith originally wrote for Benny Goodman, comes across particularly well here, with especially effective contrast between the third and fourth movements – which are marked not with tempo indications but with moods (ruhig, “quiet,” and heiter, “cheerful”). The five-movement Quintet is also very well performed, the musicians emphasizing its rather craggy construction, which still sounds remarkably modern for a work written in 1923 (although Hindemith revised it in 1954). The structure here is quite striking, the fifth movement being an exact retrograde of the first and the third, a pastiche of Ländler tunes, requiring the clarinetist to switch between B-flat and E-flat instruments. Stoltzman is adept at this, and equally so with the demands of the Sonata, in a performance that has particularly interesting resonance: pianist Yehudi Wyner was a student of Hindemith and then a teacher of Stoltzman – and is himself a composer. The result of this Stoltzman/Wyner collaboration is a tightly knit performance that progresses with intelligence all the way from the seriousness of the first movement to the good-natured unpretentiousness of the finale.
The vocal and lyrical qualities of the clarinet are made more explicit on a Ravello CD featuring F. Gerard Errante and offering clarinet-and-piano transcriptions of works originally written for voice. The musical mixture here of classical songs (from the French and German traditions), songs from North and South America, and one work from the avant-garde (a piece called lunar lace by D. Gause, who provides Errante’s piano accompaniment on that single track) is a somewhat uneasy one. Errante’s playing is uniformly fine, but the interest level of the music is decidedly mixed, resulting in a (+++) rating for the disc. The French-song arrangements, three from Debussy and four from Poulenc, come off best: they are warm, plaintive and emotionally involving by turns. The German lieder – three by Brahms, two by Schumann and one by Schubert – are less successful, the absence of the voice being felt more keenly even though the clarinet’s lines are quite expressive. All the classical songs are well accompanied by Voltaire Verzosa, while Philip Fortenberry is the pianist for the North and South American songs – two of the former and four of the latter (including three South American ones by Carlos Guastavino), plus a final track combining Alberto Ginastera’s Triste with Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns.. All these songs are affecting, if somewhat on the superficial side, and certainly Errante’s lovely clarinet tone provides a pleasant sound in the absence of voice – but the more-popular music relies for its effect on the singer’s words, not the composer’s contribution, and without those words, there is a formulaic quality to the song transcriptions that renders them less than fully involving. This is a CD offering fine clarinet playing in the service of music that does not always deserve this level of attention and attentiveness.
The clarinet is simply part of the orchestral fabric on a new Navona CD featuring the music of Brian Noyes, but here too the music involves words replaced, in a sense, with instruments. The words in this case are those of English poet John Clare (1794-1863), known as the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” because of his social class and the area where he lived. Clare led an unhappy life and suffered from what we would now call depression, as well as from alcoholism; he voluntarily went into an asylum in 1837. But in 1841, in the grip of several delusions, he escaped from medical care and walked 80 miles to his home area, where he wrongly believed he had two wives, one being his actual wife and the other a woman who was no longer alive. Noyes finds this period of Clare’s life, which the poet wrote about in Journey Out of Essex, fascinating, and it forms the basis of both Points of Decision and Shadows of Memory. These are purely orchestral works, but both are intended to evoke the words as well as the feelings of Clare. The first, longer piece is supposed to represent the poet’s various moods as he walked away from the asylum; the second is intended to reflect the difficulties of his journey home. To those unfamiliar with Clare – whose work has gained in stature in recent years but remains relatively little-known – the background of these orchestral tone poems will be obscure. The works themselves are well-made but not especially original in the way they seek to portray someone’s emotional state; both get fine performances that do not, however, show convincingly why the music should engage listeners as music – that is, why it should appeal to those who do not know the reasons for its creation. Clare was re-committed to an asylum after five months back home, and eventually died in that second institution; his story in fact has elements worthy of opera, not just of tone poems. But the (+++) CD of Noyes’ music, which contains only two of the works inspired by Clare that Noyes has written, requires too much knowledge of the subject matter underlying the music to be appealing to a wide audience.
The interplay of voice and instruments is more direct in the title work of a new CD featuring the music of Marty Regan (born 1972). Scattering Light, Scattering Flowers (2011) uses a female voice with shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) and 25-string koto (Japan’s national instrument, derived from the Chinese zheng) to evoke a series of images – and indeed, image evocation, with human voice in this piece and without it in the four other works here, is the main effect of Regan’s compositions for Japanese instruments, of which he has written more than 60. To Western ears, a little of this music goes a long way, since the sounds are quite different from those of Occidental classical music (which, incidentally, is extremely popular in Japan); and those sounds have enough similarity from work to work, and sometimes from instrument to instrument, to make the overall sonic palette of this (+++) Navona CD seem rather bland. In addition to the title track, the works here are Beyond the Sky (2005) and Shakuhachi Concerto No. 1: “Southern Wind” (2008), both for an ensemble of Japanese instruments, the latter featuring a shakuhachi soloist; Phoenix (2009) for flute and shamisen (a plucked three-stringed instrument); and 21-String Koto Concerto No. 1: “Spirit of the Mountains” (2008), which includes not only the instrument of its title but also a 17-string koto and two of the more-typical 13-string variety. There is a certain delicacy of blandness about this music, its lines tending to move sinuously and its sounds and rhythms pleasant and rather “New Age-y” rather than strongly emotionally involving. Much of it comes across a bit like background music, although in fact a series of close hearings – for listeners willing to commit the time and effort – reveals considerable beauty and subtlety here. The disc is nevertheless a limited-interest item.
So too is the (+++) Navona CD of the music of Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey (born 1966). Here the human voice appears in conjunction with a “voice” of another kind, that of the machine. Mulvey likes to contrast electronic or synthesized sounds with those made by humans, and in two of the seven works on this disc, that contrast is played out between a soprano (Elizabeth Hilliard, handling a challenging role well) and tape: The Gift of Freedom, which is intended as celebratory, and The Seafarer, where hope emerges from a state of mournfulness. Tape is used to contrast instruments elsewhere on the disc, in Syzygy for cello (Annette Cleary) and tape, Soundscape III for flute (Joe O’Farrell) and tape, and – most intriguingly – in Shifting Colours, where O’Farrell’s flute plays against (and is played off against) a synthesized flute, resulting in a dialogue by turns amusing and involving (although at 10 minutes, it does go on too long). The remaining works here are Steel-Grey Splinters for solo piano (Matthew Schellhorn), in which the percussive elements of the piano dominate over any attempt at tunefulness or expressiveness; and Akanos for orchestra, played by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Robertas Šervenikas, in which – as in the piano work – Mulvey’s main concern is the production of widely contrasting sounds and their juxtaposition against each other. This technique, also seen in several of the other pieces here, becomes tiresome after a while – the ear longs for consonance that is very rarely forthcoming. The disc will be of interest primarily to those who want to hear some recent uses of the sorts of strong contrasts and electronic-vs.-traditional instrumental layouts that composers have been using in much the same way since the middle of the 20th century.