CD Review–Works for Clarinet

CD Review

St. Petersburg Orchestra, John Russo, Clarinet: Works by Nielsen, Russo, Diemer, Schlenck, Hindemith.

CRS Master Recordings  CD 0887


From Moscow with Love, John Russo, Clarinet: Works by Copland, Russo, Pellegrini, Schlenck, Hindemith.

CRS Artists  CD 0584


John Manasse plays 3 Clarinet Concertos: Works by Mozart, Nielsen, Copland.  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, cond.

XLNT Music  CD 18011

In comparing two performances of the Carl Nielsen and Aaron Copland clarinet concertos–John Russo and John Manasse– I am drawing from the three CDs listed above.  Listening to the first movement of the Nielsen, the thing that strikes the listener up front is not only the more spacious sound of the Russo, but the vigor of Russo’s–and the St. Petersburg orchestra’s–playing.   Knowing Nielsen’s somewhat idiosyncratic later style–long melodies suddenly broken by sections of fragmented motives, and the attendant stark contrasts–I was immediately impressed with the greater dynamic and gestural range of the Russo performance, the attention to those idiosyncrasies which are such an integral part of the work.  Russo also knows well the possibilities of the multiple timbres of the clarinet, and how to bring out those timbres for maximum effect.  He reminds me as a composer why I have written extensively for the instrument.

This aforementioned spaciousness of sound in the Russo is perhaps most necessary to the second movement.  Here Russo is genuinely a soloist, whereas Manasse often sounds merely like another member of the orchestra.   Nielsen is most in his idiom here, and Russo determinedly and beautifully wrings timbre and tone from the instrument.  With the entrance of the main theme of the third movement, contrasts in dynamics and texture become pivotal to an understanding of the work as a whole.  Manasse’s entrance is executed in the style of perhaps a Mozart divertimento; Russo’s is pure Nielsen, full of rollicking humor, and the multiple timbres to prove it.   The third movement cadenza really brings these two different performances home: rarely have I heard such a marked contrast in performance style.  Russo reminds us again that the clarinet is one of the most colorful of  instruments, and that Nielsen created a truly idiomatic work for it.

Russo’s performance comes from what is perhaps an older–and in my opinion better–aesthetic: he takes many risks.  Although his performance is as error-free as Manasse’s one gets the sense that he is always on the edge, always pushing; that he is creating the music as he plays it, and not just playing it back.  I suppose if one were looking for absolute clarity and balance one might prefer the Manasse, but that is really not the point of this music.  The contrast between the performances is such that, if I did not know this piece already, I would likely come to the conclusion that the music itself is a bit directionless in Manasse’s interpretation, but a near-masterpiece in Russo’s hands.

As for the Copland, these two performances again create two almost different works.   In the first movement the Manasse is slower, perhaps a nod to the reverent quality of the music; but the Russo is at once faster yet more incisive, and more expressive.  One need not be overly slow to be reverent; Copland and Stravinsky both looked back to the Baroque masters, where motion was always maintained even in the most hushed moments. This becomes most evident just before the cadenza, where the ravishing music seems paradoxically to drag a bit in the Manasse,  yet  fills us with the rarest emotions in the Russo.   Yet again, comparing cadenzas is comparing two different worlds.  To some extent the wider variety of timbre and tone apparent in the Russo has something to do with the recording itself, for the Manasse seems more muffled, and was perhaps better live.

The second movement is not my favorite Copland, as it suffers from the outdated quirkiness which afflicts much “fast” American music of the last century–evident in works by Harris, Schuman, Piston, etc.–and which has been thankfully supplanted by a less theatrical Classicism in the quick movements of more recent Americans such as Michael Torke.  There are many jazzy bright spots, however, and Russo shows his intimate knowledge of jazz–the concerto was written for Benny Goodman–in his superior ability to “swing” the written rhythms.  Bless him, he does not play the thing as written!  In the final clarinet portamento, Russo really remembers the beginning of the “Rhapsody in Blue”, and although Manasse does a creditable job with it, Russo brings out the dangerously shrill edge we all remember from the best performances of that old chestnut.

On the St. Petersburg Orchestra CD there are additional works by John Russo, Emma Lou Diemer, John Schlenk, and Paul Hindemith.  John Russo’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra starts out in a  more contemporary realm than I am used to for his music (indeed the first and fourth movements are written in a twelve-tone context), but the craft behind the music very shortly asserts itself, and it becomes apparent that not only does this music possess a fine inherent logic, but is particularly suited to showing off the the colors of the instrument, not only played “straight” but with a multitude of contemporary effects such as flutter-tonguing.  It is to the composer’s–and performer’s–credit that these effects are above all used musically. A return to Russo’s skilled “American” style is evident in the gorgeous second bagatelle, particularly poignant after the jaggedness of the first.  Long lovely disjunct melodic motion echoes Copland yet is original, as is the composer’s sensitive use of harmony.  Midway through the movement, a reminiscence of the first bagatelle recalls the larger context of the piece.  The third bagatelle is a capable étude for the clarinet, played with gusto on Russo’s part.  The final bagatelle returns  to the atmosphere of the first, contemporary yet always musical, and even in the midst of dissonance one hears the striking harmonic and melodic emotion that is so accessible in the second bagatelle, and which ultimately aids us in understanding this more difficult music.

As a composition student of Emma Lou Diemer’s I found her to be a particularly unpretentious and straightforward teacher whose ultimate aim in teaching was to lead her student towards best developing her/his nascent style—perhaps the most valuable thing a teacher can give–in a profession that often in this century invites “rhetoric to the table”: composers knowingly–or unknowingly–promoting certain compositional techniques in favor of others.  Diemer’s Poem of Remembrance starts out quietly and proceeds like a discursive pastorale; then, at about 4 minutes in, suddenly takes a wonderful and expressive turn in the form of a tremendous climax.  This leads to more “discussion” between clarinet and ensemble—as always, Russo’s playing is of the highest order technically and timbrally.   Diemer’s gentle yet expressive harmonic sensibilities keep the pastoral quality more interesting than most, and expressive string stabs near the end lead to an apotheosis refined, lovely, yet unaffected as the composer herself.  The coda is a divine statement worthy of the best of Arthur Honegger’s work.

Schlenk’s Jazz Raga is precisely that—a piece in jazz melody and syncopated rhythms written over a raga scale.  As in the Copland, one has the sense that Russo is creating this–improvising–as he goes along, as he swings the written material greatly.  I almost wanted more swing—perhaps the solidity of the backing orchestra in the Copland allowed Russo even more freedom—but his mastery of tone, timbre, and technique is quite fully realized here.

The recording quality in the Hindemith Quintet is not up to the standard of the rest of the disk, as it appears to have been remastered from what was perhaps an analog source.  The piece is ably described in the liner notes, although I might add that it is one of Hindemith’s revised works–written in 1923 and redone in 1954—revised likely to incorporate many of the newer elements of his musical language as well as tone down early rhetoric.  Such rethinking was a habit of his in later years.  Russo’s playing–and the ensemble’s–is up to the standard of the rest of the disk, though not as apparent at first due to the lesser recording quality.

Gregory Hall



James Cohn: Concertos and Tone Poems.  Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Vakhtang Jordania, cond.

XLNT Music  CD 18010

Mr. Cohn’s music exists in strong contrast to the prevailing Manhattan Uptown–academic–and Downtown–minimalist and pop-oriented–musics.  It is quite thoroughly and deliberately old-fashioned.  Nineteenth-century musical gestures abound, from arpeggiated trumpet writing around the most basic overtone series, to an abundance of octave writing for the piano.  I have to admit up front that it is difficult for me to review these works, as I have grown used to reviewing mainstream contemporary music, and canonical works from the past.  I have little context for contemporary music that “exists” in the same period, so to speak, as the classics.

The problem I think lies in the notion of musical gestures, as I mentioned earlier.  Those gestures–textures, harmonic progressions and melodic development–exist in a time before mine; thus it is hard for me to review this as “contemporary” or “classic” music as it fits in neither category.  There is little for me–or an ear inured to various kinds of contemporary musical rhetoric–to hold onto here, and I feel this music would be of interest largely to people who have little patience with anything written after Stravinsky’s ballets or Schoenberg’s Guerrelieder.  Listening to this music highlights for me just how much music changed after 1914. The sole exception appears to be A Song Of The Waters, Variations on Shenandoah.  This could perhaps be music by William Grant Still in the quasi-impressionistic harmonies, but the aesthetic is still firmly locked in the nineteenth century of American composers such as Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick.  Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel there are many people so thoroughly alienated by the overtly experimental aesthetic of the twentieth century that an almost complete return to the previous century would be balm for the soul.  However, much as I have issues with experimental music from the past century, it is difficult for me to go back that far in analyzing music contemporary to our time but stylistically previous to the twentieth century.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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