March 03, 2022


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet and Piano; Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, adapted for the clarinet. Michael Collins, clarinet; Stephen Hough, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Dai Fujikura: Contour for Bass Clarinet; Pierre Boulez: Dialogue de l’ombre double; Isang Yun: Monolog for Bass Clarinet; Unsuk Chin: Advice from a Caterpillar, from Alice in Wonderland; Hideaki Aomori: Split. Alicia Lee, clarinet. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

David Liptak: Folgore’s Months; Soundings; Through the Brightening Air; Octet; The Sacred Harp. Eastman Wind Ensemble conducted by Mark Scatterday; Tony Arnold, soprano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Andy Teirstein: Restless Nation; Secrets of the North; Azazme Songs; Letter from Woody. Navona. $14.99.

     The meltingly beautiful sounds of Brahms’ late clarinet works are among the greatest chamber-music pleasures of the Romantic era: the two Op. 120 sonatas are not exceptionally virtuosic but invite performers to explore the limits of expressiveness and of the dialogue between wind and percussion. Brahms here holds in check his occasional tendency elsewhere to overemphasize the piano’s importance, balancing the instruments so adeptly that, when well played, the sonatas flow with utmost naturalness and a sense of inevitability. Michael Collins and Stephen Hough give these works superlative performances on a new SACD from BIS: the elegance, poise and care with which they balance and intermingle their instruments are remarkable, and the way in which clarinet and piano come respectively to the fore when Brahms wants to make some specific point is handled with such apparent effortlessness that the sonatas are like a warm bath of audible beauty. It is interesting how the key of the first sonata (F minor) carries with it nothing dark or dour, while that of the second (E-flat) includes nothing of the heroic: Brahms uses the keys as frameworks, of course, but composes, in a sense, against the expectations that the key signatures generate. Gracefulness is everywhere here: neither sonata has a deeply intense slow movement (the first has Andante un poco adagio, the un poco being operative, while the second has only an Andante con moto at the start of the finale). Collins and Hough clearly find the sonatas gracious and emotionally appealing, and their commitment to the music comes through strongly throughout, with just-right pacing to complement the excellence of instrumental balance and sensitivity to the feelings generated by the material. And their commitment shines through as well in the surprising third work heard here: Collins’ arrangement for clarinet of the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 100. Written in 1886, eight years earlier than the Op.120 sonatas, the violin work partakes of much of the still-to-come burnished emotion of the clarinet pieces: each of the three movement of Op. 100 has a tempo modifier that would not be out of place in the clarinet-and-piano pieces – amabile in the first movement, tranquillo in the second, grazioso in the third. It turns out that this sonata, which sings beautifully in its original scoring, actually gains in warmth and emotive power in this clarinet version, which in fact involves a relatively minor adaptation of the original – Brahms includes little double-stopping in the violin part, for example, but focuses on the instrument’s singing capabilities and on the same sort of easygoing qualities that he would later bring out on woodwind in the Op. 120 pair. This is a first-rate reading of the two clarinet sonatas, mingled with an insightful adaptation that extends those sonatas’ mood and shows the power of the clarinet to demonstrate and underline Brahms’ aesthetic in his later works.

     There is little attempt to use the clarinet for its sumptuous beauty, and no interest in blending its sound with that of another instrument, on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring Alicia Lee. The music here is as contemporary as possible – the oldest work on the disc dates to 1983 – and the clarinet is highlighted strictly for its own sake, except in one work that combines it with electronics. That piece is Dialogue de l’ombre double (1985) by Pierre Boulez, the best-known of the composers represented here. This piece is designed with a technique typical for avant-garde electroacoustic compositions: Lee’s clarinet is paired with an electronic version of itself, and the acoustic and electronic material ranges from dialogue to competition. Boulez, however, uses his material more cleverly than do many other modern composers, eschewing effects for their own sake and instead turning them into an exploration of the sonic similarities and differences between acoustic Lee and electronic Lee. The work does take too long to make its points – it runs almost 20 minutes – but its structure is interesting, and the writing for clarinet is accomplished. The remaining pieces here are generally of less interest. Contour by Dai Fujikura, written in 2018 for tuba and revised for clarinet in 2020, flows well and has some attractive syncopations, but seems more gestural than genuinely communicative. Isang Yun’s Monolog (1983) was also originally written for a different instrument, the bassoon, before being redone for bass clarinet. The concept here seems to be a monologue with elements of dialogue within it – Yun calls for a number of alterations in clarinet sound and technique that, if they could be played at the same time, would be dialogue-like; but as is, the piece is simply a series of contrasts. Unsuk Chin’s Advice from a Caterpillar, from Alice in Wonderland (2007) is, unsurprisingly in view of its title, a comparatively lighthearted work, and is attractive in its willingness to take the usually serious-sounding clarinet in a humorous, bassoon-like direction from time to time – also contrasting the instrument’s natural melodiousness with some near-harsh exclamations that fit the Lewis Carroll scenario quite well. In contrast, Hideaki Aomori’s Split (2020), which at about six minutes is the shortest work on this CD, is all seriousness in its contrasts between the clarinet’s low and high registers – but is not particularly convincing in its created clashes between upper and lower material, or in the rather unpleasant sound that sometimes results. The disc as a whole serves as a showcase for Lee, who plays all five works with commitment and concentrated energy. Clarinetists interested in contemporary repertoire will find much to admire here. For a more-general audience, the pieces by Boulez and Chin are the most congenial offerings by far.

     Winds are used very differently by David Liptak of the Eastman School of Music on a (+++) New Focus Recordings CD featuring five of his works as played by the school’s justly renowned wind ensemble. Liptak’s interest in these pieces is primarily in massed sound and combinatorial sonorities that are far from intimate and, although expressive in their own way, are quite distant from the intimate emotion conveyed by Brahms. Folgore’s Months (2008) is based on four 14th-century sonnets by Folgore da San Gimignano, each intended to illustrate a specific month and all combining massed winds with words sung by soprano Tony Arnold. The vocal writing is pointed, melismatic, and rather self-consciously “contemporary” in its alternation of smooth passages with angular, almost screechy ones. The ensemble is treated differently in each movement: in February it is brassy, chordal and rhythmic; in August it is milder, although scarcely lyrical; in May it is impulsive and driven; in December it is on the quiet, even mysterious side. The remaining works on the disc do not have a vocal component. Soundings (1982) is dominated not by winds but by percussion: individual winds are contrasted with massed percussive exclamations. Through the Brightening Air (2017) is especially effective in its use of winds to establish an atmospheric opening, and its lighter, dancelike middle section is effective, although Liptak’s penchant for chordal exclamations is prominent here too from time to time. Octet (2005/2015) is the most-interesting piece on the disc, a short four-movement suite that starts by creating layers of sound, continues with bouncy rhythmic sections separated by full-ensemble pauses, moves to a quieter place with more lyricism than Liptak usually offers, and concludes with a movement that mixes stop-and-start elements with massed sound in the way that Liptak clearly favors throughout the works on this CD. The recording ends with The Sacred Harp (1994), an occasional piece for an academic ceremony that eschews, or rather disguises, the inevitable fanfare-like celebratory elements expected under such circumstances in favor of Liptak’s preferred massed sonorities and, somewhat surprisingly, some melodic material that is more-straightforward than he usually presents. All the pieces are very well played by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Mark Scatterday, and the CD will certainly be of interest to wind performers. But its determined abandonment of wind instruments’ more-lyrical, more-expressive elements makes it less than fully effective for a general audience.

     A single wind instrument, the harmonica, is featured on a new (+++) Navona CD of the music of Andy Teirstein – played by the composer himself. The harmonica solos are in Letter from Woody, a work inspired by a Woody Guthrie love letter; but although they are folksy and at times plaintive enough to convey the emotional climate that Teirstein is trying to create (or re-create), the harmonica does not fare especially well when set against an entire symphonic ensemble (the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík). Still, the music itself, which features some of the swells and surface-level emotions of film music (which Teirstein sometimes composes), has some effective moments. The remaining three works on the CD, however, are more interesting. All are chamber pieces, one being strictly programmatic and the others including unusual instruments. Restless Nation is the program music, played by the Cassatt String Quartet (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Ah Ling Neu, viola; Elizabeth Anderson, cello). It is a six-movement suite based on a cross-country trip that Teirstein and his wife took with their two children, with each movement intended to illustrate a different element of the expedition. The movements are more about overall experiences than specific places (“Flora and Fauna,” “Of Rocks and Rivers”), and are less impressionistic than they are representative of emotional touchstones of the family’s travels. They are well-made but not especially distinctive from a musical perspective, and do not seem intended to reach out to an audience but to ruminate on a specific shared experience. Then there is Secrets of the North for string quartet and the traditional Swedish fiddle called the nyckelharpa, played by Marco Ambrosini. The quartet here is the Mivos String Quartet (Olivia De Prato and Lauren Cauley Kalal, violins; Victor Lowry Tafoya, viola; Mariel Roberts, cello), and the nine-movement work is mostly focused on dances (“Gamel Vals,” “Polska,” “Sarabanda” and so on). Inspired by an Isak Dinesen story, Secrets of the North also seems more emotionally engaged than specifically illustrative, although it is hard to escape the impression that knowing the story (in which a woman-turned-hawk helps a young boy) is required for full enjoyment of the material: Teirstein originally conceived the music as accompaniment to a reading of the tale. The fourth work on this disc is, like Restless Nation, a travelogue of sorts. It is Azazme Songs and is written for string quartet (the Mivos ensemble again) with solo oud (Yair Dalal) and dulcimer (played by the composer). The combination of the lute-like oud with zither-like dulcimer gives this piece a very unusual and highly intriguing sound, and its four movements are intended to reflect Teirstein’s experiences traveling across the Aravah desert in Israel with a Bedouin family. The music is based on old tunes sung by the Bedouins, and mixes exotic (to Western ears) material with clear folk-like elements. This is the most successful work on the disc, in part because its total length of 10 minutes is enough to establish the premise without dwelling overmuch on it. Teirstein writes more-accessible music than do many contemporary composers; but the works heard here do require listeners hoping to enjoy the music fully to learn and understand the background of each piece and internalize the type of communication for which Teirstein is striving.

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