The disc “More Cohler on Clarinet” was
recorded a year after “ Cohler on Clarinet”
and has all the pros of the first disc without its drawbacks.
One plus is a colorful program that brings together excellent
music from a variety of periods and showcases different “faces”
of the instrument. Another plus is the sound of Jonathan Cohler’s
clarinet. It is solid, taut, assured, and more often pressed
than soft. At the same moment, the sound is always beautiful,
controlled, and never shrill. If you allow me a non-musical
analogy, I would compare it to a good strong black coffee, while
some other clarinets are like latte diluted with too much milk!
This brings us to one of the reservations I had about the first disc: sometimes you do need more delicacy. For the present disc, Cohler and the pianist Randall Hodgkinson chose more energetic, assertive pieces, so this lack is almost never felt. But still I wish for more nuance in places, a gentler touch. Cohler does, however, have a great sense of line; his sentences are always well pronounced throughout, well powered, without weak transitions.
The other downside of the first disc was the remote recording of the instruments, especially of the piano. I am happy to announce that this problem has been completely fixed in the present recording, which has good presence and spaciousness; the balance of the instruments is just right. So, if in the first disc we could actually only discuss Jonathan Cohler, here we can also talk about Randall Hodgkinson. He is a good partner, supportive in accompaniment and expressive in solos. The great Allegro molto appassionato of Brahms is a good example of this strong partnership: no instrument is in the shade of the other, and together they seem to inspire each other.
Actually, the entire performance of the Sonata Op.120 No.2 is electrifying. It is hard to believe that this was Brahms’ penultimate composition. The first movement is not rushed, and all the small motifs spread out and show their beauty. At the same time, the overall structure is never lost from view. The second movement is ecstatic, with a stately middle section. The last movement is a set of variations of increasing density, on a simple theme. It contains some signature Brahms tricks, recognizable yet no less precious. Cohler and Hodgkinson finish it with gusto.
Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is typical Poulenc, and can be used to illustrate the essence of his music. There are joyous leaps and pranks, noble gestures and silly jokes. This is one of his last works, and is dedicated to the memory of his friend Honegger. The Poulenc nostalgia is especially sweet, and the Poulenc melancholy is especially deep. Cohler and Hodgkinson are energetic and jazzy in the bright, happy parts of the sonata. In the poignant, introspective middle episode of the first movement, and in the dreamy second movement, they are sensitive and sincere. This slow movement is enthralling - a deep, heartfelt sadness, soft as memory, bitter as regret. The finale is exuberant and happy. Its slower middle section has real flight.
I must admit I was used to more relaxed readings of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke. But the approach of Cohler and Hodgkinson works OK, in its way. The pieces become very passionate - a good match for the Brahms. The last one would benefit from more rubato. As a whole, these seem too intense.
Milhaud’s Sonatina starts and ends with movements marked “very rude”. And so they are. The music jumps and rolls, quite wild and unpredictable. There is plenty of polytonality. This is not as approachable as Poulenc, especially on first hearing. But the performance is just brilliant. Probably, Randall Hodgkinson should receive the main praise here: his piano is wonderfully wild, versatile, precise and effective. The first movement is a musical jungle; the second is serious, with glimpses of Bartók. In the third, the two instruments unleash a real horseplay, an over-the-top dance.
We stay in this early XX century modern style with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo. In 1919, they must have sounded very modern. The first piece is slow and ascetic. The clarinet makes big steps, angular and cautious at the same time, playing in its “cat” mode. No.2 is in the “bird” mode, with gurgling leaps and rattling bustle. The sound borders on the shrill. No.3 is a jagged dance - one of Stravinsky’s first attempts at jazz. Or at what he decided jazz should be, since he had never really heard it before. It has a repetitive beat and is a little annoying, like a Chassidic woodpecker.
This disc has its face, its aura. The selection of music suits very well the intense manner of the performers. Their enthusiasm is irresistible. The liner-notes by Jonathan Cohler are first-class, entertaining and informative all in a small space.