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Larry Combs (clarinet)
Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)
Sonata for Clarinet Solo* (1986) [15:18]
Sonatina for Clarinet Solo (1951) [9:27]
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Trio for Clarinet, Horn and Piano (1980) [19:27]
Gunther SCHULLER (b.1925)
Romantic Sonata for Clarinet, Horn and Piano (1983)
Larry Combs (clarinet), Gail Williams (horn), Mary Ann Covert (piano)
Recorded: 1986 and *2004



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Three of these performances were recorded almost twenty years ago, and issued on an LP (LP S731) by Crystal Records. As the booklet notes to this CD, by Larry Combs himself explain, Miklós Rózsa heard the recording of his Clarinet Sonatina and wrote to the clarinettist observing “Your tone is beautiful, the tempi are correct and the interpretation convincing”. Later, he also sent to Combs a copy of his newly completed Sonata for solo clarinet. Combs gave the premičre of the Sonata and, on this CD, we have the first recording of it.

Rózsa’s admirable film music still tends to attract more attention than – and perhaps to distract attention from  - his ‘classical’ compositions. The more one hears of those compositions, the more unfortunate it seems that this should be so. His more classical compositions are never less than well crafted and intelligent, sometimes much more.

Larry Combs’s booklet notes give a date of 1957 for Rózsa’s Sonatina, but it is more commonly listed as being written in 1951. Its two movements demand supreme control of the instrument, and find it in Combs’s performance. The first of its two movements is made up of a simple theme, slightly reminiscent of Rózsa’s Hungarian roots in its more or less modal nature, and seven variations, richly contrasted and given a bravura performance here. The second movement is marked vivo e giocoso; again Larry Combs is utterly persuasive and engaging, the rhythmic variety thoroughly assured. The later Sonata is in three movements, at its heart a serene andante semplice, in which Combs exploits the full tonal range of his instrument and does justice to the exquisite beauty of some of Rózsa’s writing. The outer movements are perhaps less memorable, but still make excellent listening, with their lively syncopations.

18 November 2005 saw the eightieth birthday of Gunther Schuller. I saw hardly any mention of this in the UK. I hope a good deal more fuss was made in his native USA, for Schuller’s has been a major contribution to modern music, as composer, in the fields of both ‘classical’ and jazz traditions, as a writer, particularly of some of the very best serious books on jazz, and as a practising musician. His main instrument was the horn – whether as soloist in the premičre of his own Horn Concerto, conducted by Goossens, at the age of 19, or playing on the epochal Miles Davis recordings, The Birth of the Cool, around 1950. Unsurprisingly the writing for horn is particularly effective in his Romantic Sonata for Clarinet, Horn and Piano, originally written in 1941 (at the age of sixteen) and revised in 1983. It evidences, like so much of Schuller’s work, his impressive fertility of mind and his individual ear for instrumental combinations. Combs’s own experience in the jazz world makes him a particularly good interpreter of some of the passages.  In three movements, the Sonata’s opening adagietto is full of ideas and the range of rhythmic, melodic and tonal effects is characteristically abundant. The central adagio gives attractive melodies to both the clarinet (exploiting the upper register) and the horn, while the closing vivace juxtaposes vigour and sweetness. An interesting and rewarding piece, well played by Combs and his colleagues.

The booklet notes tell us that George Rochberg’s Trio for Clarinet, Horn, and Piano “was written, the composer thinks about 1947, or perhaps earlier. It was revised some 33 years later, in 1980. There were no significant changes in the revision, according to Rochberg; he ‘just edited’ the score from the vantage ground that one is able to look at an earlier work with greater clarity”. In three movements, the Trio seems sometimes to try to get more out of its materials than they will comfortably yield and there is a consequent sense of strain at times. The writing for horn – well handled by Gail Williams – produces some of the most striking moments, particularly in the second movement. The different resources of the two wind instruments are used interestingly in the dance-like rhythms of the third movement.

Larry Combs is a highly accomplished musician whose instrumental control and musical insight are never in doubt. He is also responsible for the exemplary booklet notes. Gail Williams and Mary Ann Covert work well with Combs in the two trio pieces, and the whole is a valuable and largely enjoyable (I have some reservations about the Rochberg) programme of American chamber music focused on the clarinet.

Glyn Pursglove





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