Originally published in The Clarinet 47/1 (December 2019). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Reviews: December 2019
Chambery: Chamber Music for Bass Clarinet. Fie Schouten, bass clarinet; Jelte Althuis, bass clarinet; Goska Isphording, harpsichord; Bart de Vrees, percussion; Tarmo Johannes, flute; Taavi Kerikmäe, piano; Marko Kassl, accordion. T. Klein: Leichte Überlappungen, Kengboginn, SteinHolzGummiWasser, Bogus Bogey, Vermutung, Tõmba Tõmba; E. Poppe: Schlaf. Attacca, ATT 2018156. Total time 50:00.
This album is truly outstanding and represents bass clarinet playing and chamber music at the highest level. Chambery is a collection of six chamber music works by Tobias Klein – all featuring the bass clarinet – and one contrabass clarinet duet by Enno Poppe. Aside from the beautiful musicianship within each track, it must also be mentioned that the album as a whole has a clear artistic arc and musical clarity that is a welcome addition to the world of contemporary music and clarinet recordings.
The newest piece on the recording, Leichte Überlappungen, is an exploration of proportions between notes and tempos, which, according to Klein, was a fairly strict compositional landscape. However, the piece itself sounds expressive and free with an impressive variety of tone color and musical textures from bass clarinetists Fie Schouten and Jelte Althuis. Kengboginn is a duet for bass clarinet and harpsichord and is thoroughly and delightfully weird. The combination compliments itself exceedingly well, due in no small part to Schouten’s magnificent bass clarinet playing, which is so agile that any potential balance or color problems are totally nonexistent. Schouten and harpsichordist Goska Isphording expertly navigate the weaving in and out of synchronicity, both in terms of rhythm and tonal language.
SteinHolzGummiWasser adds percussion with bass clarinet to create a sound world that is seemingly endless in its colors. Percussionist Bart de Vrees has full control over every sound he makes which is equaled, as usual, by Schouten. Multiple sounds and extreme register changes alternate quickly with a groove rhythm but neither interrupts the other. While this track is somewhat less cohesive than the others, the presentation is still excellent. Bogus Bogey adds Tarmo Johannes on flute and Taavi Kerikmäe on piano with Schouten on bass clarinet to bring a free jazz element to the album – and does so brilliantly. It evokes the feeling of short musical vignettes that are linked unison lines between the bass clarinet and flute. The ensemble work from all involved is jaw-droppingly clean and leaves nothing to be desired.
Vermutung pairs bass clarinet with Marko Kassl on accordion in a work that is exceedingly complex rhythmically and sonically. The blend and ensemble achieved by Schouten and Kassl is astounding, especially considering the difficulty of the task at hand. It’s perhaps no bass clarinet player’s dream to be told they sound like an accordion, but in this case it’s a compliment. At times the color of the instruments matches so perfectly they are practically indiscernible from each other. Tõmba Tõmba is an exploration of sound for solo bass clarinet. Tone color, multiphonics, trills and rhythmic noise from the instrument are all beautifully woven together in a tonal tapestry that is fascinating and engaging. This work can certainly hold its own among contemporary solo bass clarinet pieces and should be considered for performance by every bass clarinetist. Enno Poppe’s Schlaf (Sleep), for two contrabass clarinets, is calm and peaceful – true to its name – but the peace is punctuated by stark outbursts and tone quality variations that transform into thematic material. The result is a piece that breathes by starting at rest and expanding to the point of rupture only to return again to peaceful unison. The execution is again perfect from Schouten and Althuis.
This album is as close to flawless as any I can think of. The cover art, selection of the pieces, recording quality, editing and execution from the performers all have a clear artistic vision in mind. The musical language is modern but has every expressive musical element one would hope to hear in a piece, regardless of when it was composed. There is nothing cold, expressionless or academic here, only beauty presented in a language that reflects the world in which we live by world-class performers with a distinct musical vision. This is the first album I’ve heard from this collection of artists, but I hope it won’t be the last.
– Spencer Prewitt
Equivocal Duration. What Is Noise: Anastasia Christofakis, clarinets; Dalia Chin, flutes; Joshua Burrel, violin; Justin Page, cello; Cholong Park, piano; Megan Arns, percussion. S. Stucky: Ad Parnassum; J. Burrel: Roanoke; D.T. Little: Descanso (waiting); L. McLoskey: Requiem. Centaur Records, CRC 3689. Total Time: 47:33.
Contemporary music often provokes strong reactions. Some people simply love it and are curious to discover new works; others have an aversion against it and perceive it as noise rather than music. What Is Noise, the name of the chamber music ensemble featured on this CD, seems to provocatively hint at exactly that polarizing aspect of contemporary music. Its members Dalia Chin (flutes), Anastasia Christofakis (clarinets), Joshua Burel (violin), Justin Page (cello), Cholong Park (piano) and Megan Arns (percussion) are strong advocates for new music and with their debut album, they convincingly present a strong argument in favor!
Equivocal Duration features new compositions by four American contemporary composers. Even though the expressive language changes from piece to piece, the compositions seem connected through common underlying themes that speak of loss, sadness, mourning, vulnerability and the fleetingness of life. Far from being depressing though, darkness is always accompanied by light and hope. The CD opens with Ad Parnassum by Steven Stucky, a highly accomplished composer who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music and who was on the faculty at Juilliard. Ad Parnassum pays reverence to a painting carrying the same title by Paul Klee from the year 1932. Stucky was inspired by Klee’s art – a busy surface, dense with details, that is still able to produce large clear shapes that are simple and powerful. In Ad Parnassum, Stucky aspires to transform that art into music.
Roanoke was written by the ensemble’s violinist Joshua Burel. The music portrays the attempt of survival of an early English colony on the Chesapeake Bay and the emotions of a captain who, after leaving his people in order to secure supplies for their survival, returned to find the colony deserted. The musical climate is dense with suspense and expression of desperation. Burel makes skillful use of the contrast between high, soaring lines in the violin, flute and clarinet and the dark, grounded timbre of the drums, piano and cello.
Descanso (waiting) was written by David T. Little. The Spanish word descanso means rest, break or relaxation, and the piece opens with the chiming of bells that recalls Japanese meditation music or Balinese gamelan ensembles. As soon as the other instruments join in, the calmness gives way to long, sad melodies. Yet, exactly as the title of the work suggests, they lack clear direction. It was written after the discomforting experience of anxiously waiting to hear from a friend, who was visiting her relatives in Sri Lanka when a devastating tsunami hit central Asia in 2004.
Requiem, ver. 2.001 by acclaimed composer Lansing McLoskey consists of five shorter movements that transition into each other. It was intended to be a requiem for a millenium, but with incredible tragedies happening all over the world, including the events of September 11, 2001, the composer realized that it was impossible to capture those immense proportions of loss and suffering, the depth of despair, spiritual thirst or human emotion. Instead, his music is a brief aural snapshot of the modern world.
Personally, I prefer experiencing contemporary music live in a concert to listening to it on a recording. The exquisite performance of the members of What Is Noise, however, convinced me to play this disc again. All the players on this disc are of an expert caliber, and Christofakis’s tone and technique are so honed that the blend and balance with the ensemble is seamless and unblemished. Lively and intimate at the same time, the musicians’ rendering is captivating and of a very high musical level. If you care for new music that is everything but noise, this is a CD for you!
– Simone Weber
Unheard-of//Dialogues. Unheard-of//Ensemble: Ford Fourqurean, clarinet; Matheus Sardinha Garcia Souza, violin; So Sugiyama, cello; Daniel Anastasio, piano. C. Stark: Maple; E. Rodgers: Family Picnic 2008; M. Lanci: Coalescence Cascade; R. Füting: procession – process: peace (dona nobis pacem); T. Ko: Hum Phenomenon; B. Loory: The Well; N. Hudson: music for falling/flying. N. Demos: Frontlash. Oktaven Records. Total Time: 64:00.
This recording is a collection of new music performed by the Unheard-of//Ensemble. The group is comprised of clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Although this instrumentation may have been novel at the time of Messiaen, it certainly has come into its own as a standard grouping, offering composers the flexibility of a nimble wind instrument added to the standard piano trio instrumentation. The clarinet is particularly adept at matching the dynamics and subtleties of the strings but also presenting itself as a unique force when necessary.
All of the composers represented on this album take great advantage of the timbral possibilities of the instruments, with lots of non-traditional playing techniques and use of electronics and looping effects. This, coupled with recordings of natural sounds and vocalizations by the performers, really makes this album a unique sonic treat. In fact, listening to it with a good pair of headphones that offers heightened isolation might be the best way to really appreciate the nuance and expansive dynamic range from the performers. The album contains excellent notes from the composers which help listeners understand the works’ musical complexity and social commentary.
Maple, by Christopher Stark, was inspired by the Maple Fire of 2016 in Yellowstone National Park. Stark uses natural recordings of burning and insects but then manipulates them into more rhythmic frameworks that are highly effective. The theme of lament is underlined throughout by pitch bends and slides. Erin Rogers’ Family Picnic uses spoken word and electronic manipulation interspersed with instrumental motives. Coalescence Cascade by Michael Lanci is “inspired by the scientific phenomenon of the same name, in which a droplet of water is not completely absorbed upon its initial contact with a larger body of water. Instead, the droplet bounces off the water’s surface at an increasingly smaller volume until it is fully immersed by the larger body of water.” This principle underlies the form of the piece with recognizable rhythmic and harmonic motives that are juxtaposed with each other over different time spans.
Procession-process:peace (dona nobis pacem) by Reiko Füting weaves melodic motives from the Missa Pange Lingua by Josquin des Prez into a sonic landscape with string scraping, microtonal trills and other sounds to create a haunting effect. Tonia Ko’s Hum Phenomenon is based on the “persistent, low-frequency hum that has been reported in various locations around the world.” Nathan Hudson’s music for falling/flying was written as a companion work to a poem, “The Well,” by Ben Loory. The poem is read prior to the performance of Hudson’s work and it is an effective pairing. The final piece on the album, Frontlash by Nikitas Demos, explores how people today tend to talk past or over one another. The instrumentalists, in Demos’s words, “present solo statements that are immediately and aggressively interrupted by the other three instruments before the soloist has an opportunity to fully articulate the idea.”
All of the works on the album are quite dissimilar and each one creates its own tiny world that is brought to life exquisitely by the ensemble. In addition, the attentive listener will enjoy some musical quotes from and stylistic allusions to great 20th-century chamber works. Those who are looking for new music and something different will appreciate this latest contribution from the Unheard-of//Ensemble.
– Christopher Ayer
Violet. Elizabeth Crawford, clarinet; Katrin Meidell, viola. D. Dousa: Spring Forth in Joy; B. Fuhrman: Study After Hokusai; J. Brandon: Shades of Violet; E. Trawick: Borderland; T. Gyllin: Tranquil Awakening; D. Swilley: Aurau. Z. Browning: Double Star Destiny. Albany Records, TROY 1758. Total Time: 68:46.
Every now and then a group will emerge to present listeners with fresh timbral possibilities that defy conventional modalities. Such is the case with the ensemble Violet and their newly-released, self-titled CD. This viola and clarinet duo, consisting of Elizabeth Crawford, clarinet, and Katrin Meidell, viola, has released an entire album of world-premiere recordings.
Upon first listening, one initially searches for other voices in the mix but then is drawn into the clever and thoughtful compositions written exclusively for clarinet and viola. The inspired and committed performances by Crawford and Meidel make this a brilliantly conceived and executed project. Because of the ingenuity, originality and diversity of each piece, Violet is an album worthy of consumption in a single setting.
The different approaches of the included composers are as varied as their compositional styles. Some of the works are bleak and haunting, such as Benjamin Fuhrman’s eerie and effective Study after Hokusai. This contrasts well with Dominic Dousa’s happy and lively Spring Forth in Joy, which will have the listener whistling its joyful tunes all day. Jenni Brandon’s Shades of Violet explores the many properties and implications of the color violet, while Zack Browning references feng shui and astrology in his Double Star Destiny. All of the pieces on this album are pleasing and effective additions to the body of repertoire for the ensemble.
Violet was formed by a pair of friends, as are many musical endeavors, and their camaraderie is evident in their performances on this album. After performing the iconic Rebecca Clarke Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, the duo committed to creating and recording works for clarinet and viola alone. This collaboration has resulted in over 100 new works. Meidel and Crawford have a knack for playing off of each other well, and the lack of other instruments on this album perhaps allows their voices to shine through more effectively. Because of the close-knit nature of their sonic collaboration, each track feels like a conversation between two friends. Both musicians are skilled and imaginative in their own right.
In addition to its musical merits, the album has wonderfully descriptive program notes and some of the compositions have thorough explanations by the composers themselves. This serves as a worthy guide to each piece; a sort of roadmap to the musical journey. In addition to the attractive presentation of the CD and program notes, the sound quality is of a very high level with clear and warm resonance throughout. The sound engineer has balanced the two instruments well through all registers.
It is quite delightful to discover this new album not only as a listener but also as a pedagogue. The ensemble has done a great service to the musical community by expanding our repertoire possibilities for clarinet and viola. This enjoyable album should be an essential part of any clarinetist’s listening collection.
– Stephanie Zelnick
To Paradise for Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway. Nancy Braithwaite, clarinet; Claron McFadden, soprano; Roberta Alexander, soprano; Michael Stirling, cello; Vaughan Schlepp, piano. E. Hemenway: Doors (Three Poems by W.S. Merwin); Questions of Travel; To Paradise for Onions; A Child’s Garden; Asian Figures; Four Poems of Langston Hughes. Etcetera Records, KTC 1632. Total Time: 60:12.
Born in 1926 in Massachusetts, American composer Edith Hemenway majored in English literature at McGill University before completing graduate studies in vocal accompaniment at the New England Conservatory of Music and music composition at Brown University. Several of her works featuring the clarinet were composed for American-Dutch clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite, who currently resides in the Netherlands and has given the Dutch premiere of several of Hemenway’s other works for clarinet. To Paradise for Onions features Braithwaite in collaboration with sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander, cellist Michael Stirling and pianist Vaughan Schlepp.
Hemenway draws the text for the first piece on this album, Doors for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano, from three poems by W.S. Merwin, all titled “A Door.” In this piece, the clarinet and cello provide elegant countermelodies to the vocal line; Braithwaite and Stirling both support McFadden with admirable sensitivity rather than overpowering her. Braithwaite’s vibrant and shimmering tone complements the richness of the cello and piano, while her use of vibrato further lends a vocal quality to the clarinet’s sound.
Questions of Travel, for clarinet, cello and piano, originated in 1999 as a piece for solo piano that Hemenway reworked into a trio in 2007. This charming set of character pieces would pair well with the weightier trios by Beethoven or Brahms for the same instrumentation. Braithwaite’s intonation is impeccable in the melodic figures shared with piano in unison or octaves. She navigates the various technical difficulties in this piece with great aplomb, although sometimes with a less centered sound than exemplified in the rest of the recording. Hemenway’s background in vocal accompanying is evident in To Paradise for Onions; much of this duo for clarinet and piano feels like a song without words. Braithwaite carries the long phrases of this music to exciting climaxes with exemplary legato and a rounder, more covered sound than was on display in the works with piano, demonstrating the ample flexibility in her tonal concept.
Hemenway draws the text for A Child’s Garden of Verses from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection of poems from the same name. Braithwaite plays the rapid scalar passages with incredible agility matched by Schlepp on the piano. Braithwaite also matches McFadden’s phrasing to great effect in this composition; Hemenway treats the clarinet as more a harmony part to the vocal line as opposed to the countermelodies in Doors. Asian Figures is also inspired by texts from W.S. Merwin, this time in the form of riddles and aphorisms from Korean, Japanese, Malaysian and Chinese texts that Merwin presents in English adaptations. This collection of character pieces provides technical and lyrical challenges that Braithwaite renders with infectious style and grace; her articulation in the altissimo register is especially noteworthy. Her full tonal palette is on display in this piece, covering everything from pure and focused to muted and pale while still reflecting the style of the given movement. The final selection on this recording, Four Poems of Langston Hughes, is scored for two sopranos and piano. While this does not feature the clarinet, McFadden and Alexander combine to give a welcome interpretation of this well-written set.
The liner notes include biographies of Hemenway and the performers as well as full texts for all songs. Hemenway appears to have written most (if not all) of the program notes and has also included photos of herself and Braithwaite. In this recording, Braithwaite and her collaborators have provided excellent interpretations of lesser-known repertoire featuring some of our most familiar and beloved instrumental combinations.
– David Cook
Samba Jazz. Ben Redwine, clarinets; John Previti, double bass; David Rosenblatt, guitar; Ben Corker, guitar; Dominic Smith, drums. A. Jobim: Desafinado, Samba De Uma Nota Só, Só Danço Samba, Wave; C. Bryd: Samba Dees Days; J. Silva: O Pato; A. Barroso: E Luxo Só, Bahia, B. Powell: Samba Triste; K. Dorham: Blue Bossa; V. Moraes: Black Orpheus, Chega de Saudade. Antidote Sounds, ANT 1803. Total Time: 64:00.
In his album Samba Jazz, Ben Redwine presents a recording of 13 different jazz tunes all tied to one of his areas of specialization – Latin American music history. The first seven tracks represent the charts used in the original Stan Getz Jazz Samba recording, while the final six are bonus tracks that juxtapose nicely against the originals. The concept springs from Redwine’s doctoral work; he took great pains to do justice to the 1962 Jazz Samba album by recording it in the same space and by using the same recording engineer who recorded the legendary album featuring Getz and Charlie Byrd. He even presents the charts in the same order as the original.
Redwine’s deep love and respect for this music combined with his detailed knowledge of the origins of Latin jazz shine throughout each track, especially in his delicate and thoughtful solos. He exhibits a thorough understanding of the forms and feels of each style, and there many varied styles explored here. The different samba styles are executed with so much variation in character that only those particularly familiar with the samba would hear that they are all the same form. Also of great interest is how Redwine’s use of clarinet and bass clarinet (rather than the saxophone in the original Getz/Byrd album) completely changes the soundscape of each chart. It is as though the color of the instrument coupled with Redwine’s expert playing changes the very fibers of the music, but not so much so that we can’t hear the clear relationship of this album to the 1962 original.
Upon initial listening I was first struck by the lovely sound and amazing palette of color of which Redwine seems to have a never-ending supply. His tone on both the clarinet and bass clarinet is smooth and flowing like honey, accenting the flowing nature of the samba. In the first track we hear a brilliantly expressive jazz clarinet tone that evokes the core of the Latin American clarinet sound and also lulls us into the groove with expertly produced variants of articulation for each gesture. In Samba Triste, Redwine shows off his bass clarinet chops with a tone that is warm, inviting, and so entirely heartbreaking that it provides the perfect antithesis of the first few jaunty and carefree tracks. His use of the middle to lower clarion register throughout the improvisation accentuates the melancholic nature of the chart. Redwine’s playing is so sensitive, colorful, and expressive that I only wish we heard more of it on this album. There were no breathtaking moments of climax in any of the individual tracks, which may have enhanced the otherwise great work done here. Employing clarinet and bass clarinet rather than saxophones significantly alters each chart enough that perhaps more extremes in dynamic contrast and exploration of registral variation could give the album the same level of intense synchronicity of the 1962 album.
– Vanessa Davis