“A Touch of France”. I would call it “A Touch of Class”. It is not all about France, anyway.
On thing is clear, the clarinet playing of young Anna Hashimoto is really first class. It is fluid and expressive. Her sound is beautiful in all registers, with smooth legato and her virtuosity is exceptional. She dispatches the hardest passages with ease and flair, and never allows loose links or “blind spots”. In fact, over the entire length of the disc she maintains a high energy level, without a single dull moment. In some places I wish she took a more relaxed approach: pressure and hard edges sometimes obtrude. Even when she decides to speed up the music (as in the Poulenc sonata) she usually manages to preserve that laid-back sense. The delivery in those cases feels natural and brings a new kind of excitement.
Daniel Smith is a reliable accompanist and is in good accord with the soloist. However, most pieces here put the clarinet into the spotlight, and the role of the piano is secondary. Sadly, the piano sound can seem lifeless compared to that of Hashimoto’s clarinet. Maybe it’s the fault of the instrument.
The program is very well planned. Its overarching structure is almost symmetrical. First, Hashimoto dazzles us with transcendental exercises in the La Traviata
Fantasy, a symbiosis of dramatic emotion and virtuosic fireworks built upon Verdi’s timeless melodies. Then comes the lyrical mosaic of Arthur Benjamin. It is an attractive work, accessible and diverse. The moods change like masks – a true tribute to Ravel and his Valses nobles et sentimentales
. Hashimoto is a good swimmer in Debussy’s pastel waves. This performance of Première rhapsodie
is a rare case of my not missing the colors of the orchestral version: it’s all there, alive and breathing, with a very fine contribution from the pianist. The beginning is dynamic, the ending wants to turn into Rhapsody in Blue
, and all between is better still. This reading of the Rhapsodie
is compact and youthful, full of bright colors.
All this leads us to the two big, serious sonatas, which are performed with integrity and character. I am not quite persuaded by the first movement of Poulenc: its bright and jolly side is done admirably, but the reticent, nostalgic side loses some of its soft melancholy. However, the slow movement, which has an unexpected momentum, is entrancing, and its ending is magical. The finale is sharp and precise. The sonata by Saint-Saëns definitely deserves more popularity. Arguably, it has its drawbacks, and in 1921 it must have looked an anachronism. But real beauty has no fashion. The performers convey its Romantic grace and are excellent in the gloomy slow movement, with its profound sorrow. Written in the last year of composer’s long life, this sonata can be interpreted as his farewell word on the Past, the Present, and the Future.
We are on the way back, and pass another small impressionistic essay by Debussy. The closing piece is as Italian and virtuosic as the opening. It is written for the smaller E flat clarinet, whose voice is lighter and also more shrill under pressure. Above the steady background of the imperturbable piano, the cheeky little clarinet performs acrobatic jumps and somersaults with elegant ease.
The recording quality is OK, though not very detailed and the piano is more distant than would be optimal for a duet. The insert note (English only) was written by Hashimoto and tells us a little about each work and its composer. On the whole, this is an excellent disc. The program is very attractive, and the performance brilliant. As for the decisions of interpretation - though I might disagree with some of them, they have their logic. It was a pleasure to listen to Anna Hashimoto. She is a new star of the clarinet. Let’s hope this star will get brighter still.