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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Aaron COPLAND (1900 - 1990)
Clarinet Concerto (1948) [17:26]
William Thomas MCKINLEY (b. 1938)
Clarinet Duet Book II [11:19]
Concerto for Two Clarinets and Orchestra [21:47]
Kim Ellis and Richard Stoltzman (clarinets)
Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
rec.: Futura Productions, Roslindale MA, USA, January 2007 (Clarinet Duets); remainder Concert Hall of the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava, May 2008
Experience Classicsonline

This is the second disc I have reviewed from the imaginative Navona Records label. Whether by accident or design they have both featured the clarinet played by the well-known virtuoso Richard Stoltzman. The previous disc, The Big Muddy, I enjoyed a lot, the current disc far less.

As I have observed before Navona are steadfastly quirky in their approach to repertoire and presentation. The latter results in packaging more akin to rock rather than classical CD’s but I like very much the “bonus” material included on the CD in the form of extended notes, session photographs and in particular PDFs of the scores by William Thomas McKinley. The combination of repertoire here is to take the most popular clarinet concerto of the 20th Century, have it played by an unknown player accompanied by an average orchestra and couple it with works by the unfamiliar aforementioned McKinley. I don’t follow how the marketing strategy here works; which bit of what is appealing to whom? Before moving onto the music itself - the bonus material threw up a couple of queries. The biography of Copland includes the sentence; “..this recording also features clarinettist Richard Stoltzman performing Copland’s clarinet concerto..” Everywhere else on this disc it seems clear that it is Kim Ellis playing the Copland. A fact supported by the caption on one of the photographs which reads; “Kim Ellis warms up for tracking the Copland Concerto”. Tracking as I understand it means laying down a separate track implying the concerto was not recorded with soloist and orchestra together… surely not.

So to the music, assuming it is Ms Ellis playing the Copland concerto she has a clean and unfussy technique and is able to produce a beautifully limpid sound. This is shown off to best effect at the very opening. This concerto is a model of concision both in length - roughly two eight minute movement straddling a cadenza - and instrumentation - a string group to which a piano and harp are added. Famously written for (and recorded by) Benny Goodman, the soloist has to be able to traverse a wide musical range in this relatively short period from meltingly nostalgic to edgy and energetic. As implied from the above, Ellis is good at the languid, less good at the energetic. There is a fractional degree of caution in her playing of the faster passages that detracts from the music’s impact. I listened to three other versions to compare; Sharon Kam with the LSO on Teldec, Charles Neidich with I Musici di Montreal on Chandos, and of course Benny Goodman (conducted by Copland) with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Sony/CBS. Each of these other versions has more to offer musically than this current one. Neidich reinstates Copland’s original ending and is technically fearless with a significantly faster tempo for the second movement resulting in a spiky urban edge that makes the music take on a menacing quality that is interesting even its not what Copland meant! Kam (on a generally moderately received disc - but one that I like!) plays with an overall brilliance that is matched by the LSO and is simply superior to Ellis. But they are all overshadowed by Benny Goodman - there’s an understated cool here that works - the music fits him like the proverbial glove. The pseudo-jazz sections have a playfulness that sounds utterly natural and beguiling and the lyrical passages would melt the sternest heart. Against this Ellis is good but not good enough. She is little helped by the journeyman Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, one rehearsal short of total technical security. Listening to the opening of the 2nd movement - track 2 - even though the tempo is relatively steady the string ensemble and tuning in alt is suspect. There is a well-known passage at 3:40 where the clarinet is accompanied by a walking bass line. The effect is meant to be ‘slap’ bass - what we get here is a rather disconcerting ‘Bartok pizzicato’. Far far more aggressive than it is meant to be. I simply fail to understand how that choice is made and then recorded. I have encountered this orchestra before on CD and the same impression remains; competence without brilliance.

Jumping over the duets for the moment to the other concerted work; William Thomas McKinley’s Concerto for Two Clarinets & Orchestra. McKinley is a composer whose work was previously unknown to me. Born in 1938 I assume the middle name is used to avoid confusion with the 25th president of the United States! It would be broadly true to say his idiom is jazz influenced/inflected. His biography on the website of music publishers G. Schirmer lists the likes of Gary Burton, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon as musical collaborators - not a bad bunch to start off with - whilst Wikipedia lists three viola concertos amongst his selected works! I’m guessing that it is this jazz heritage that has brought him to the attention of Navona Records. The concerto is a substantial work running to some twenty one minutes. Unfortunately the orchestral playing and recording lets the piece down. It is thickly scored but the majority of the detail is lost and blurred. Dip into the first two minutes of the concerto to hear what I mean. The orchestral strings are seriously struggling to keep up with the tempo and the stuttering web of percussion that I sure is meant to drive the movement just comes across as a mess. The solo writing is written much of the time in the style of a band horn section. By that I mean they articulate the same rhythms but with different notes - there is relatively little contrapuntal writing between the clarinets. The overall result is one of clutter not clarity which I do feel is in the main the fault of the orchestra not the piece. A general lack of dynamics doesn’t help - this is made clear in the 4 pages of the score available as PDFs on the CD. More in hope than expectation the composer writes ppp to sfff (very VERY soft to very VERY loud plus an accent) within three swiftly moving bars - you hear nothing like this extreme in the performance. The slow movement twines and meanders with chiming bells in a slow waltz. Here you can hear the timbral difference between the two soloists most clearly - Stolztman has an edgier tone to Ellis. The Presto Molto Subito finale returns us to the world of complex cacophony. As elsewhere, ensemble is not all it could be, even affecting the soloists who don’t always speak as one. This is the longest movement of the three and the one where the compositional dissonance levels have been raised. No problem in that as such but the cumulative effect is rather draining. This works lacks the musical wit or orchestrational virtuosity of a Michael Daugherty - try the very end of the piece from 8:00 of track 11 - to get a sense of what is missing, an oddly abrupt and perfunctory ending not well performed.

Returning to the Clarinet duets that were recorded at a different venue and date. I am not sure I have ever heard clarinet duets before. There is a timbral issue to surmount here. The sound of a clarinet is acoustically quite “bare”. To blend two together without the mitigating aural influence of some strings or other woodwind is to make for a quite austere listening experience and such it proves. Also, there is a danger in allowing us to follow a score; when is a diversion from the printed score artistic or just downright wrong? There are several moments within the first two pages of the first movement where what I see and what I hear diverge - follow bars 19 - 22, the second clarinet has shifted a beat ahead. Of course the danger there is that one starts following the score rather than just sitting back and enjoying the music (bars 33 - 39 in the second movement again badly out - the first clarinet rushing the syncopations) but then I think why wasn’t this picked up by the producer - that is what he is there for! And so it goes on….. this is a six movement suite which I could imagine being of interest and fun for clarinettists to play - more so than to listen to. McKinley uses the limited resources of the two instruments well and he certainly makes considerable technical demands on the players. As with the concerted pieces a little more studio time and some retakes would have cleaned things up I’m sure. Of course quality should rule over quantity but one cannot feel anything but short-changed by a full price disc that just gets to the fifty minute mark.

Full marks to those concerned for imaginative programming but this kind of music needs more convincing advocacy.

Nick Barnard


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