CD Review–Clarinet Sonatas

CD Review

Clarinet Sonatas: Brahms/Brahms/Russo/Schlenck

CRS CD 1190

As a reviewer of mostly contemporary music, it is difficult for me to say anything new about canonical works like the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas.  What makes a work canonical in the first place is a critical mass of reviews and opinion—which the Brahms certainly has–so a review of the performance in this case is most appropriate.

The Curtis Institute has produced an impressive number of legendary performers over the years, and Ang Li and John Russo are clearly two of this number.  In the Brahms, Ms. Li has a fine sense of the overall drama of the works, holding the attention in a particular movement from beginning to end.   John’s clarinet playing has that same sense of the whole, but what makes his playing stand out so much from his contemporaries is a full-bodied tone.  His deep understanding of the varied timbres of the instrument at different tessituras is a subject to which he has obviously given much thought, and which he shows off wonderfully here.

John Russo’s Clarinet Sonata No. 6 starts in that mode of amiable diatonicism characteristic of many composers of the American style, but perfected by only a few: early Arthur Berger, Norman Dello Joio, and John Russo, to name a few.  At its best, this approach combines chords carefully chosen for their sonorous value with melodic lines often highly disjunct in the motion of the intervals; yet the music remains approachable to an untrained ear because of the fundamentally diatonic nature of the scales employed.  This opening is characteristic of the best of the genre, with a deep simultaneous understanding of harmony and melody.  As the first movement progresses, the clarinet adds polytonal touches skillfully placed to color and not intrude upon the general mood.  The rest of the movement is a genuine dialogue, each instrument having its own highly idiomatic motives—characteristic and sonorous statements in the piano, and florid polytonal comments from the clarinet, with which the movement concludes.

The diatonic piano/polytonal clarinet ideas are further elaborated in the second movement, this time with an erudition reminiscent of Stravinsky; changes of meter and rhythm abound, and the whole has the feeling of the recitativo writing characteristic of Stravinsky’s transitional works of the early 1950’s, when the recitatives of late neo-classical works like The Rake’s Progress were elaborated a few years later in the long selectively atonal statements of Threni. The middle section keeps this sensibility, yet recalls the first movement in its dialogue between the principals.  This time, the piano has absorbed some of the polytonality of the clarinet, and the clarinet reciprocates by its diatonicism. The return of the beginning textures becomes an apotheosis, with magnified gestures, and piano and clarinet are finally united in a blend of polytonality and the diatonic.

The Toccata begins as an extension of the second movement texturally in the piano, then rapidly becomes an imitative call and response between the principals.  One particular motive, appearing around 1:30 into the track, recalls the Barber Toccata in its alternation of repeated notes with large disjunct leaps, and is wonderfully pianistic.  What follows is largely linear and polytonal, with occasional recitative chords–borrowed from the second movement–in the piano to offset the linear writing.  By this time the piano, having thoroughly absorbed the character of the clarinet, contains material almost identical to it; yet, near the end, the keyboard reminds us of its essentially harmonic nature with some well-chosen chords. However, I would not say that the piano merely absorbs the clarinet style, for the arpeggios and general direction of the music are well-suited for the piano, as the progression of notes in the clarinet are very much chosen with the unique fingering of that instrument in mind.

John Schlenck’s Clarinet Sonata No. 2 immediately brings us into the more chromatic world of composers like Roger Sessions and (again) Arthur Berger, who managed to bridge the gap beautifully between the neo-classical and neo-chromatic American styles.  This piece is a reflection on those two different styles, for both appear in a kaleidoscopic manner throughout the first movement.  The shifts between are adeptly handled, as when around 4:00 the Session-esque rhetorical statements shift color to Copland-like sonorities and textures, reminding me why I appreciate both styles.

The Andante continues these shifting styles, encompassing both in the clarinet’s short solo introduction.  I would almost say both styles are used simultaneously, creating an autumnal landscape of solos and duets which take the form of a theme and variations. I particularly like the variation at 3:00, as I immodestly observe that it somewhat resembles this author’s own compositional style in its preference for stacking the interval of the third.   The logical outcome of such thirds-play is the jazzy variation which follows, where the thirds are now major/minor “blues thirds”, and the movement swings accordingly.

Another toccata begins the final Allegro, after a while autumnal again in its preference for melancholy clarinet lines.  By turns lyrical, declarative, mischievous, it handles the “American Scherzo”  form quite well. As I have stated before, this particular style is not generally to my liking, as it tends to eschew counterpoint and development in favor of effects. However, Schlenck’s skillful counterpoint—a mix of Sessions and Copland this time—again bridges the gap between the diatonic and chromatic American idioms quite successfully, and points the way to a synthesis of techniques beholden to no “ism”.   In other words, no expressive content is sacrificed to the constraints of a particular style.

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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