Originally published in The Clarinet 48/3 (June 2021). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Audio Notes: June 2021
by Kip Franklin
Archival Series of Commissioned Works by International Composers. The Verdehr Trio: Elsa Ludwig-Verdehr, clarinet; Walter Verdehr, violin; Silvia Roederer, piano; Gary Kirkpatrick, piano. F.J. Haydn (arr. N. Fheodoroff): Trios Nos. 1-3, Hob. IV; D. Einfeldt: Haydn Triptychon; R. Boschetty: Bagatelles; E. Firsova: Verdehr-Terzett, Op. 45; J. McCabe: Fauvel’s Rondeaux; G. Buhr: Faust Flying; A. Tsuji-Nakanishi: Songs; D. Smirnov: Trinity Music, Op. 57; T. Selçuk: Voygage; M. Nobre: Mandala, Op. 106; I. Kurz: Trio Giocoso; I. Gotkovsky: Trio; S. Shu: Sounds of the Luhong Plateau; C. Halffter: Triada (1+2=3). Blue Griffin Recording, BGR 571. Total Time: 79:41 (Volume 1), 76:07 (Volume 2), 79:25 (Volume 3).
More than four decades ago the Verdehr Trio set out to expand the existing repertoire for the clarinet/violin/piano trio. Their contributions over the years have been innumerable and have resulted in hundreds of commissions, collaborations and projects. Series of discs, DVDs, performances and the like encompass The Making of a Medium, the umbrella title given to the trio’s extensive body of work over the years. Included in this body of work are three large-scale album sets: Archival Series of Transcriptions (4 discs), Commissioned Works by International Composers (3 discs), and Commissioned Works by American Composers (2 discs). Taken together, these albums are the trio’s final recordings. The first of this final trifecta of albums, the Archival Series of Transcriptions, was reviewed in the March 2021 “Audio Notes” column. This column details the final two albums in the trilogy.
Each disc in the second collection opens with a trio by Haydn that was originally written for clarinet d’amour and violin with continuo. Nikolaus Fheodoroff’s commissioned realization of the continuo part adds a layer of depth to these charming and eloquent works. Listeners will immediately appreciate Elsa’s crisp and refreshing core of sound and her razor-sharp articulation. Both Elsa and Walter execute the suspensions, appoggiaturas and retardations with tenderness, care and wit. Pianist Gary Kirkpatrick’s playing is light and nimble, with utmost sensitivity shown to the clarinet and violin. The Verdehrs’ interpretation and performance yields an affable listening experience that is appropriately tender, jaunty and cheery.
Directly following each Haydn trio is a work from Dieter Einfeldt’s Haydn Triptychon. In these, Haydn’s trios serve as source material, but Einfeldt’s writing expands the harmonic palette, formal structures and instrumental capabilities. The result is effectively a mix between a Beethoven symphony and a Weber opera. Haydn Triptychon is divided into three trios: Trio Concertante in Bb Major, Hommage á Haydn in Eb Major and Divertimento Concertante in Eb Major. Each of these is a full-scale, multi-movement work by itself that pairs well with Haydn’s original works.
In the final movement of the Trio Concertante, playful hemiolas and zealously-performed arpeggiations and chromatic lines by Elsa combine with migrating melodic fragments from all players and culminate in a rousing coda full of technical flair and harmonic satisfaction. Walter’s extended solo playing in the slow movement of the Hommage is performed with chiseled sentimentality. The quasi-fanfare passages in the first movement of Divertimento are heroic and declamatory, and the heavily-syncopated finale has an electric forward-spinning energy.
Elsa’s soliloquy that opens Radek Boschetty’s Bagatelles becomes the framework over which Walter weaves a meditative melody. The players perfectly contain the tempestuous soft and loud energies of the brief “Sostenuto” movement with expert balance and awareness of ensemble blend. Kirkpatrick’s beautifully haunting playing at the opening of the third bagatelle, “Andante,” gives way to a melancholic pas de deux between the Verdehrs, with Elsa and Walter alternating between swirling filigree and soaring melody. The spotlight shines on Kirkpatrick in the “Lento;” his execution of the widely-spaced chords is unfeigned, poignant and reflective. The final “Vivace” is heavily accented and syncopated with each member of the trio performing with vigor and conviction.
Sustained, sinuous melodic lines characterize Elena Firsova’s Verdehr-Terzett. Elsa and Walter’s evenly-paced, controlled crescendos keenly convey the building intensity of the texture. The plaintive opening transforms into a pointillistic, frenetic episode marked by astute pizzicatos from Walter, pointed articulations across the registers from Elsa and energetic interjections from Kirkpatrick. The effectiveness of this work is achieved through the Verdehr Trio’s deft control of dynamic and registral extremes, as well as Elsa’s emotive multiphonic trills and Walter’s powerful soloistic lines. The same mastery is on display in Marlos Nobre’s Mandala which features wild vibrato, rapid timbral trills and flutter tonguing.
John McCabe’s Fauvel’s Rondeaux bustles with quiet energy and angular, rhythmic unisons. The playing from Walter, Elsa and pianist Sylvia Roederer is synchronized and impressive rhythmically and tonally, with impeccable intonation on perfect sonorities and unison alignments (especially laudable given that this was recorded live!). Volume 1’s final work, Faust Flying by Glenn Buhr, billows and flutters with pristine and seamlessly-executed technique. Elsa’s consummate command of articulation is again put on full display in the first movement. The coordination of rapid-fire passagework and driving rhythm in the work’s final movement is precise, focused and enviable, with Walter’s exquisite playing floating high above Kirkpatrick’s steady, unrelenting rhythmic ostinato.
Akane Tsuji-Nakanishi’s Songs is the centerpiece of Volume 2. A large work consisting of 12 short movements in varied textures – some for all three players, others for only two and some for only
one – it showcases the flexibility of the Verdehr Trio. “The moon alone” and
“If I did not exist” are highlights of this
set owing to the respective poetic solo work by Elsa and Walter. Taken as a whole, the piece effectively illustrates the individual and collective poise and dexterity of the ensemble.
Trinity Music by Dmitri Smirnov is a standout work from this set due in large part to Elsa Verdehr’s mastery of contemporary techniques and tone color. Her multiphonic playing is flawless and she achieves an otherworldly timbre that is both evocative and ominous. Delicate care is applied to every entrance in the ruminating opening, and the latter third of the piece broils with intensity and fervor. More than any other work in the set, Trinity Music reveals the deep artistry with which these players approach their individual instruments and in making chamber music. The subtlest intricacies of color, line, pitch and hue are utilized to the fullest extent. The trio unites these ideas to deliver a performance that is nothing short of brilliant.
Ivan Kurz’s Trio Giocoso is striking for its quasi-tonal harmonic language and the proficient tandem playing from the Verdehrs, especially in the quartal and quintal harmonies of the final movement. Attacks and intonation are perfectly matched. Ida Gotkovsky’s Trio offers each performer solo passages, effectively allowing for cadenzas within a single-movement-concerto-like formal design. The undulating arpeggiations from Kirkpatrick coupled with the Verdehrs’ angular melodic lines creates a compelling soundscape. The trio delivers a dramatic and captivating interpretation that is engaging from start to finish.
Like Trinity Music, Shuhua Zhu’s Sounds of the Luhong Plateau exploits the coloristic possibilities of the trio, albeit in a much different manner. Folk melodies and their constituent pentatonic patterns are woven into the three-movement work resulting in smooth, conversational exchanges between the clarinet and violin. The melodic playing is buoyant with cascading arpeggios interjecting color and verve. Roederer’s technique is especially light and vivacious. The harmonic variety and craftsmanship of the Verdehr Trio make this work one of the most memorable and enjoyable of this set.
Archival Series of Commissioned Works by American Composers. The Verdehr Trio: Elsa Ludwig-Verdehr, clarinet; Walter Verdehr, violin; Silvia Roederer, piano; Gary Kirkpatrick, piano; Lily Funahashi, piano. D. Ott: Ebbrovory; M. Satterwhite: Memento Mori 3: Ribbons on the Memory Wall; O. Vazquez: Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano; G. Gan-ru: Si, Elegy for Tiananmen Square; A Singleton: Jasper Drag; C.R. Young: Variations on an Original Theme; G. Shapiro: Dance Suite No. 3, “Samba”; L. Bassett: Trio; C. Hoag: Inventions on the Summer Solstice; W. Wallace: Trio Concertante; K. Hoover: Images; G. Smart: Persimmon; M. Harris: Island of Dreams. Blue Griffin Recording, BGR 575. Total Time: 79:36 (Volume 1), 76:07 (Volume 2), 78:20.
This collection begins with David Ott’s remarkable Ebbrovory, a work in which the Verdehr Trio deftly balances bittersweet lyricism with tightly-intertwined passagework. Their performance of the second movement, “Andante molto,” is especially outstanding in its delicate interplay and tonal warmth. The final movement recalls the energy and verve of the finale of Arutunian’s Suite. Overall Ott’s work is a powerful and compelling one that the Verdehr Trio delivers with aplomb and beguiling dynamism.
Elsa’s keening wails and altissimo playing deliver a sense of anguish in Marc Satterwhite’s Memento Mori 3: Ribbons on the Memory Wall, a work that tackles the seriousness of human loss. The work’s brooding ambience is often foreboding due in large part to the trio’s handling of the softer dynamic spectrum and their conveyance of a quiet, anticipatory energy. The overlapping layers of rhythmic complexity are expertly matched, and the Verdehrs’ control in the stratospheric parts of their respective ranges is serene.
Interesting timbral combinations permeate Octavio Vazquez’s Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano: tremolo violin paired in unison with clarinet; clarinet staccato matched with violin pizzicato. In these couplings Elsa and Walter achieve perfect intonation and articulate, nuanced precision. The counterpoint in the second movement between Walter’s rapid runs and Elsa’s intense trills is seamless. The entire ensemble assembles in an adrenalizing, klezmer-infused dance driven by pianist Sylvia Roederer in the work’s final movement.
Walter’s extended solo work in Ge Gan-ru’s Si: Elegy for Tiananmen Square is especially noteworthy. His pacing and performance are superb. Gary Kirkpatrick’s versatility is brandished in the passages that call for playing inside the piano on the strings; the effect emulates a traditional Chinese instrument but under Kirkpatrick’s touch the sound also evokes a supersensible essence. Alvin Singleton’s Jasper Drag percolates with nervous energy and soliloquy-like passages that Elsa performs with great skill and affect. Charles Rochester Young’s Variations on an Original Theme offers a refreshing return to triadic harmony and familiar form that is performed with charisma and majesty. Gerald Shapiro’s Dance Suite No. 3: Samba is a spry and sultry work performed with great agility and nonchalance that concludes the first disc.
Listeners acquainted with Leslie Bassett’s Soliloquies will recognize familiar elements, especially the timbral trills, in his Trio. More often than not, the work is more of a duo, with Walter and Elsa operating as a single, cohesive entity and Kirkpatrick holding his own on piano. The rigid, angular rhythms contrast with the whirlwind latticework in the violin and clarinet. “Lyrical,” the work’s middle movement, is especially notable for its tranquil bookends that are defined by Elsa’s pure, vivid tone and Kirkpatrick’s lustrous piano sonorities, and its more wild, turbulent middle that is marked by Elsa and Walter’s technical fastidiousness.
The six short vignettes that comprise Charles Hoag’s Inventions on the Summer Solstice capture a variety of characters and tonal colors. The most impressive movement of the work calls for a somewhat unusual set of performance instructions: Kirkpatrick plays inside the piano on the strings with wire brushes, Walter performs artificial harmonics, and Elsa only plays on the upper half of the clarinet. These challenges prove unproblematic in the capable hands of the ensemble. The work’s final movement, “The Inexorable Procession of the Sun to Summer Solstice,” exploits even more coloristic potentials, including clarinet flutter tonguing that Elsa performs with blistering intensity.
William Wallace’s Trio Concertante is rhythmically engaging and features extended solo passages for the clarinet and violin. The trio performs with elegance and charm in this quaint single-movement work. The second movement of Images by Katherine Hoover, titled “Variations on a Colonial Hymn,” features wafting melodic lines executed with careful sentimentality. These contrast with gigue-like and jazz-laced rhythmic gestures that trek throughout the ensemble in the third movement. Walter’s robust pizzicato is showcased heavily in Gary Smart’s Persimmon and Elsa’s solo passages are especially gallant and boisterous.
The final work, Matthew Harris’s Island of Dreams, is a collection of three dances. The trio performs the opening “Tango” with force and vitality. “Rumba” contains prominent smooth, laid-back lines from both Walter and Gary Kirkpatrick. The final “Bossa Nova” is carefree and blithe and provides a fun and entertaining conclusion to the set.
The liner notes for both album sets are extensive, insightful and attractive and reference the fact that a majority of these works were recorded live. As such, they contain certain peripheral noises one would expect in performance – a chair creak, an audible page turn, a cough from the audience. Listeners will notice occasional differences in recording quality between live performances depending on the time and medium of their recording. However, none of these elements detract at all from the quality of the listening experience; in fact they authenticate and verify the virtuosity and skill of the Verdehr Trio. Recording engineers Dean Bredwell and Sergei Kvitko of Blue Griffin Recording in particular deserve heaps of praise for their work in mixing, mastering and marketing these recordings.
For a career as vast and wide-reaching as the Verdehr Trio’s has been, no one article or album can fully encapsulate their valuable contributions to performance and pedagogy or the pristine quality of their playing. In addition to the CDs found in the Archival Sets, there are 24 CDs in the Crystal Record’s Making of a Medium Series featuring 101 commissioned works and 11 transcriptions as well as 9 DVDs that contain valuable interviews with commissioned composers; these are available on YouTube and verdehr.com. Their work has given voice to several unknown composers, including several women and underrepresented composers, has artistically and tactfully confronted difficult subject matter, and has produced generations of students, teachers and performers. Although we can look forward to more from the Verdehr Trio in terms of published scores and parts from the Archival Series of Transcriptions, these discs mark their last recordings. The trio’s dedication of these albums to present and future violin-clarinet-piano trios passes on the task of advancing the artform to the next generation of musicians. Members of the Verdehr Trio have become champions of the very medium they set out to make. May we all extend our gratitude and appreciation for their legacy and carry their mission forward into the future.