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CD Review

European Adventure

Music for Clarinet and Piano

Jennifer Showalter, clarinet
Joel Clifft, piano
CD Baby 1001 56:49
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Cool reed, hot reads.

With so many conservatories and so may graduates, the competition of attention for any one rages to the point of the ridiculous. It would amaze me to learn that most of these graduates didn't perform at least at some extremely high standard, if I judge how precipitously orchestra playing has risen in my lifetime. Sixty years ago, most student orchestras were unlistenable; now they attack with relish and ability repertoire that used to give pros the fits. However, most youngish players tend to clump around the same point. And if you're not an opera singer, pianist, violinist, or cellist, you can pretty much forget stardom, unless you're Hilary Hahn or Ray Chen, musicians with both brilliance and individual viewpoints. An awful lot of dross stands in the way as well, creatures of marketing as well as the unexplainable, at least to me. I've yet to understand why Lang Lang has a career, for example. I think his musical mind trivial and often even clueless about the repertoire he works on so diligently. Actually, the dross obscures older performers as well, who generally find favor among specialists. How many have actually heard Solomon play Beethoven, Nissman play Prokofiev, or Pinza sing anything other than "Some Enchanted Evening?"

While there have been highly respected clarinetists like Thurston, Kell, de Peyer, King, Stoltzman, Shifrin, Marcellus, and Meyer, none has had a limelight career, other than Benny Goodman, a very special case. Consequently, it doesn't surprise me to stumble over a fine clarinetist I had never heard of.

Jennifer Showalter reveals a lovely tone, superb line, and fine articulation, as well as a lively musical personality. To call pianist Joel Clifft an "accompanist" seems a bit of a misnomer, since he's not just along for the ride, but a genuine collaborator, with a command of piano color that makes you think of the orchestra which isn't playing.

Malcolm Arnold's well-wrought sonatina belongs to a series of works the composer wrote mainly for friends of his. His friends, incidentally, included distinguished former colleagues in the London Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony, where he rose to principal trumpet. Virtuosity is an important part of his outlook as is his ability to write to an individual performer's strengths. Frederick Thurston got the Clarinet Sonatina. Quirky, it gives the lie to those who claimed 'way back in 1951 that tonality had played itself out. At least, those who can predict at any moment which direction it will zig have a musical ESP stronger than mine. This concentrated work falls into three movements, the traditional fast-slow-fast. The first movement jumps like crazy, with weird melodic twists. The second sings wistfully in hints of jazz (hearing Louis Armstrong inspired him to take up the trumpet in the first place), with a slightly darker central section. The cheeky (even fiery) third has more than a hint of Bartók in it, especially those works inspired by Bulgarian rhythms. The sonatina doesn't last very long in terms of actual minutes, but rather than feeling cheated, you find yourself oddly satisfied. It gets a rhythmically tight performance which nevertheless achieves playfulness when called for.

Claude Debussy composed his Prémiere Rhapsodie (there ain't no deuxi`me) as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire. His Petite pièce for clarinet served the same function. Pleased with the Rhapsodie, Debussy later orchestrated it himself, a task he often left to others. It has two parts – the first dreamy emphasizing line and tonal beauty, the second a little feverish dance which calls for executant agility. Once again, it's a test piece, although not just that. Debussy, a poet of the sensuous and the physical, writes something far beyond mere utility. I admit I prefer the orchestral version, but Showalter and Clifft invest their reading with the huggable, indolent warmth of a summer day.

Although Igor Stravinsky always aspired to live high on the sturgeon, he went through times when hadn't a sou, especially just after World War I, where he, his family, and his mistress lived off the largesse of the patron of L'Histoire du soldat in Switzerland. In a rare burst of gratitude, Stravinsky wrote three little pieces for solo clarinet. I don't know their technical hurdles, but their interpretive difficulty – and the first piece especially – breaks through the roof. Players have no chords to hide behind. They must invest all their musical imagination in a single line. Most very good performers – Charles Neidich, for example – do merely OK. Reginald Kell really does get these pieces and despite tempos on the decidedly slow side, creates three compelling mini-narratives. My favorite interpretation comes from Michel Arrignon (I assume) of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, part of Boulez's Stravinsky Deutsche Grammophon box. He seems to know them so well, he plays around with them. Showalter to me misses the first one; it just goes by. However, she improves a bit for the capricious second and the reeling third, but never really captures or seems convinced of their whimsical, goofy atmosphere.

The Brahms late works for clarinet inhabit the chamber summit for the instrument. Brahms made versions for viola of the two sonatas. I've never found a clarinetist I've liked in either work, although several violists have bowled me over. To me, the clarinet sentimentalizes a strong set of ideas. The viola suits the material better. It has more tonal weight. Showalter does nothing to change my mind, although she does have moments: in the recap of the first movement . The major lapse of both her and Clifft is that they fail to catch what I call the "oceanic roll" of Brahms's line. Just listen to violist Paul Silverthorne on Meridian CDE84190 to understand the difference.

The program ends attractively on a "fantasy" on themes from the opera La Traviata. Most people probably know the story from the Garbo movie Camille, since both works come from the same Alexandre Dumas (fils) novel. A piece of theatrical claptrap, Traviata has remained immensely popular through the years, mainly because composer Giuseppe Verdi could write so many great tunes. Most fantasies – like Liszt's, for example – were written by touring virtuosos for their own use to call attention to their musical virtues. Lovreglio, a flutist, composed one apparently just because he liked the genre. There's really no form here. Themes appear and go through elaborations. Compared to most fantasies, Lovreglio's is restrained, even tasteful. Showalter and Clifft step along with grace and charm.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz