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CD Review


Music for Clarinet & Orchestra

  • Rick Sowash: Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra
  • Paul Ben-Haïm: Pastorale Variée for Clarinet, Harp & String Orchestra
  • John Williams: Viktor's Tale
David Drosinos, clarinet
St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
Marquis MQCL81423 50:56
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Recommended.

Three unusual concerted works for clarinet and orchestra, with John Williams probably the best-known of the three composers. Paul Ben-Haïm (born Frankenburger) emigrated from Germany to Palestine at the rise of the Nazis in 1933. His music had typified certain trends in the German music of the Twenties and Thirties – highly chromatic, with rhythmic elements abstracted from "hot" jazz and cabaret orchestras. In Palestine, however, he began to create an idiom that would reflect the Middle East from the perspective of the European tradition. Some have described his later music as "Mediterranean," by which they mean that it incorporates Jewish and Arabic melodic elements. The Pastorale Variée consists of six variations on an idea that seems to be a cantilena, with a "shake" characteristic of Middle-Eastern chant. It turns out that the shake, while not strictly speaking the varied theme, supplies much of the musical material. After a "stately" variation followed by one that emphasizes the clarinet's agility (theme in the accompaniment), variation #3 sets us in a "quiet dawn," reminiscent of Ernest Bloch's pastoral moods – the "Swiss Songs" movement of the Concerto Grosso #1, for example. This mood continues and deepens in the fourth variation. An eastern European peasant dance starts up with the theme beginning as a bass ostinato. Variation #6 begins as a nocturne which leads to another folk dance, this time more Middle Eastern in flavor. In a curious way, the treatment echoes the second of Grieg's Norwegian Dances. The clarinet tootles along until it dips into an extended unaccompanied cadenza and the entire enterprise glides to a serene end. A very beautiful work.

I really like Steven Spielberg's "small" pictures – Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Munich, The Terminal, among them. Viktor's Tale comes from John Williams's score for The Terminal, the story of an innocent Eastern-European tourist (country not specified) stuck in an airport due to the American immigration and State Department bureaucracy. Though it has its Kafka moments, the picture on the whole emphasizes Viktor's optimism, capacity for friendship, and ultimate (small) vindication, all of which Williams captures in this happy little snippet. I associate the music's idiom with klezmer, but it could be from any European country east of Germany.

For me, despite the Ben-Haïm piece, the big work on the CD comes from Ohio composer Rick Sowash, his Clarinet Concerto. Of the Sowash I've heard (and I've heard more than most), I consider this his most ambitious and most realized score. I have no idea where, or if, Sowash formally studied composition, but he seems to have learned mainly by writing steadily for decades. This has led him to finding his own, immediately recognizable voice.

I think most of us know best the "heroic" concerto, where the soloist vies with the orchestra and comes out triumphant – the Beethoven "Emperor" concerto, the Brahms First Piano Concerto, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto #1, and any of the four Rachmaninoffs. However, there are other types, like the "balanced" conversation (almost any of Mozart's concerti), what I call the "wisdom" concerto (Beethoven's Violin Concerto; Brahms's Piano Concerto #2), and the divertissement (Honegger's and Poulenc's piano concertos), among others. All of these types imply a different relationship between the soloist and the ensemble. The soloist dominates the "heroic" concerto, participates as first among equals in the "conversation," or discourses wittily either on its own or in response to the orchestra in the divertissement. In the "wisdom" concerto (very rare, by the way), the soloist dominates not through heroics or greater heroics than the orchestra, but the orchestra seems to listen to what the soloist has to say and ultimately defers. The soloist "comes out on top" simply because of his greater musical depth. Sowash's Clarinet Concerto falls into the "wisdom" category, much like Finzi's for the same instrument.

The sonata first movement is an open-hearted moderato in no particular hurry. Arpeggiated themes, up and down, imply 7th harmonies (for those of you keeping score at home) à la Walton. However, the "feel" of Sowash's treatment of these themes belongs to Sowash alone. For one, it lacks Walton's neuroticism or nerves, if you like.

The second movement begins as a hymn, complete with chimes. Sowash titles the movement "The View from Carew," after the Art Deco Carew Tower, the second-tallest skyscraper in Cincinnati, and tells us in his liner note that he wanted to depict his feelings on top of that building. Fine with me, even though when I hear it, I immediately picture myself in the mountains on a fall day. It has to be my fantasy, since I, an indoor cat, wouldn't be caught outside, let alone in the mountains, on a bet. I believe you can see the Kentucky foothills from the Carew, at any rate. After the hymn, we get more arpeggiated themes, up and down, and a neat moment in the concerto appears when one of these themes appears in a minor mode (rather than in a minor key). The hymn and the arpeggios return, this time with more passion, which eventually leads to a serene fade-out.

The third movement skips, to beautiful, humorous (as opposed to silly), "outdoorsy" effect – a sort of idealized pastoralism. The structure of the movement is difficult to relate to a classical form, but one could call it a rondo with very long episodes and the main theme varied at almost every appearance. Again, in his liner note, Sowash aims to connect with classic Modern "American" music – Copland, Thomson, and so on. In its optimism and big-sky vision, it succeeds, without sounding like any of the composers Sowash names. It's difficult, in this period, to write such music without sounding hollow, but Sowash gives us something substantial and convincing. This is neither nostalgia nor faux innocence, but the expression of a realistic, healthy buoyancy.

I certainly commend clarinetist David Drosinos for assembling a wonderfully enterprising (and surprising) program. I love his tone, like Devonshire cream, and his remarkable ability to communicate the music behind the notes. Vladimir Lande occasionally moves a hair pokily for me (I like the quicker side of tempos), but this by no means sinks the enterprise. Nothing bogs down, which means that Lande and his St. Petersburg musicians sustain the tempos set. I'm just sayin', if I were conducting… (you'd have a dog's breakfast). I will be returning to this disc often.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz