Moonflowers, Baby!

Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1939) [16:42]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, H.42 (1921-22) [6:20]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Tema con variazioni (1974) [8:51]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Six Studies in English Folksong (1926) [7:40]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Duo Concertant, Op.351 (1956) [6:22]
Caprice, Op.335 (1954) [2:02]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Pulcinella (ca.1944) [2:17]
Meyer KUPFERMAN (1926-2003)
Moonflowers, Baby! (1986) [11:28]
Jonathan Cohler (clarinet), Judith Gordon (piano)
rec. Aug 1993, Campion Center, Weston, Massachussetts.
“Moonflowers, Baby!” is one of the three discs recorded by Jonathan Cohler in 1992-93. The other two were “Cohler on Clarinet” (Ongaku 024-101 - see review) and “More Cohler on Clarinet” (Ongaku 024-102 - see review). These two other discs constitute a small anthology of the clarinet repertoire, covering almost two centuries and including such staples as Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, both Brahms sonatas and the Poulenc sonata.
The present disc is not as all-embracing, and in my humble opinion this is much to its advantage. For example, I was not persuaded by Mr.Cohler’s Brahms and Schumann - they seemed too intense for my taste. However, here on this disc the music is firmly anchored in the 20th century. More precisely, the anchor is placed in the witty, bright and elegant French composition school. This music suits Cohler’s style perfectly. Here he is also more gentle and subtle where needed - as in the RVW and Kupferman pieces.
The program opens with Hindemith’s light and transparent sonata. It is very characteristic of Hindemith’s style and combines formal modernism with genuine lyrical feeling. It receives the most warm and expressive performance. The first movement is moderately paced and has a languid Brahmsian waltziness. The tiny, angular second movement is something between a Prokofiev’s march and a Benny Goodman improvisation. Then comes the slow part, like a dark river flowing through the night. The music reaches an expressive climax and then calms down. The swift Rondo is cheery and playful, with a whipping whisk of a Ravelian train-ride. Despite its size and diversity, the entire Sonata is very coherent, and should be heard by anyone scared away from Hindemith by rumors of his dry formalism!
The entire Honegger Sonatina is shorter than the slow movement of the Hindemith. The music rises from the depths in soft and dark-hued arches and branches. The slow movement is an impressionistic panorama with bluesy reflections. The short finale is busy and bustles with energy.
The beautiful set of Variations of the ever-youthful Jean Françaix must be really difficult to play, but seems to present little difficulty to Cohler. The variations are bright and inventive, and the theme undergoes many transformations, in character and in rhythm. From the innocent, carefree first statement of the theme - through the joyful buzz and fuss of the first three variations - through the heartfelt, deep emotion of No.4 - and the Ballet of Unhatched Waltzers in No.5 - to the syncopated, jazzy joyride of the last variation; it’s all fun and delight. The performance is stunning, with the clarinet sound so soft and elastic, so new at every turn.
Now we enter quite a different world - that of the tranquil British pastoral. Ralph Vaughan Williams spent much effort collecting and studying British folksongs. Here he took six of them as the base for these six little essays. All except the last are calm, wide-flowing, molto cantabile. There is this kind of “airborne” feeling, so characteristic of pastoral RVW, the one we know from The Lark Ascending. The sixth study is brisk and lively, a cheerful closure. The entire set is played with charm and deep inner feeling.
Milhaud’s Duo Concertant is in ABA form, where the A part is a bouncy polka. Milhaud’s beloved polytonality rules in the middle part, sweet and pastoral, though much sunnier than Vaughan Williams. The same polytonal sweetness fills the short Caprice. Light, transparent veils dance in the air. Pulcinella by Eugène Bozza is a quick Scherzando, built mostly from ornamented runs up and down, with a short impressionistic moment right in the middle. I would not call this a must-hear piece of music, but it provides a good showcase for Cohler’s virtuosity.
The last stop of this fascinating journey brings us to America. When Jonathan Cohler asked Meyer Kupferman “What is a moonflower?”, the composer answered: “It’s just what you imagine it might be. A flower that blooms in the moonlight. Sensitive, subtle, beautiful, refined.” And so is Cohler’s performance. The piece is for clarinet solo, but this is hardly noticeable: so rich and “broadband” is the voice of the instrument. This is much due to the fact that the late composer was himself a first-rank clarinetist. His intimate knowledge of the instrument’s body and soul is apparent. There are three distinct sections with telling markings: 1. Medium bounce; easy going. 2. Slow blues tempo. 3. Fast and smooth. At the end we return once more to the smoky, weary blues of the slow section. The music is colorful, moderately spiced with effects, and is very rich in changing moods and “faces”. It is a veritable rhapsody. Cohler plays as if he owned the piece, with deep understanding and supreme musicality. “An absolute knockout recording”, as the composer himself declared.
Throughout the disc, Jonathan Cohler’s clarinet is amazingly flexible. It is powerful and vibrant on the one hand, gentle and smooth on the other. Its sound is constantly beautiful. What is also important, each piece has a distinct approach, according to its character. Judith Gordon at the piano is not a step behind, versatile and expressive. The instruments blend perfectly, thanks to the precise balance found by the recording engineer. The recorded sound has depth and volume. All in all, I cannot find any weakness in this disc. I will not call it a revelation or an eye/ear-opener. But from head to toes, this is probably the most satisfying clarinet disc I’ve heard in quite a time. It has a diverse and attractive program, excellently performed and recorded. Sensitive, subtle, beautiful, refined - a moonflower, baby! 

Oleg Ledeniov 

Sensitive, subtle, beautiful, refined