Now here’s a disc to cheer you up! If you like the music of George Gershwin or Malcolm Arnold, or if you know already the eclectic style and lambent humor of William Bolcom, you won’t be disappointed. Nothing is too serious here, but nothing is simple either.
Not very characteristically for our times, Bolcom loves ragtime, and has written quite a number of rags. Ragomania is his “Rhapsody in Rag” – its glorification, just as Ravel’s La Valse was the glorification of the waltz. The music is jazzy, jagged and jaunty, with catchy tunes and masterful writing for the orchestra. The music is loud, with tons of brass and percussion. As the composer explained in the liner-note, he wanted to cover the audience noise at the Boston Pops concert! Ragtime is a dance, and dance is about movement, so there is a lot of movement and energy in the music. While an excessive loudness can be a problem, the infectious drive set by the conductor is irresistible. The performance is inspired; all rhythmical games are well played. Still, overall it sounds as just another festival overture in the upbeat mood. We’ve heard it many times, and this is a new dish from the old kitchen. On other hand, if you like the old kitchen, why not try a new dish?
The more I listen to it, the more I like the Clarinet Concerto. In the musical space, I would place it somewhere between Prokofiev, Poulenc and Piazzolla. Its structure is classical. The first movement is marked Allegro, but is played as a leisurely Andante. The music reminded me of Prokofiev’s concertos – and of the exotic paintings by Henri Rousseau. The orchestration is not too thick, and does not eclipse the soloist. The clarinet of Richard Stoltzman sings over the clashes and murmurs of the orchestra. There is some ragtime again in one of the themes, with a nice swing. A minute-long cadenza is sharp and spiky.
The second movement is a slow waltz, warm and serene. This is beautiful music, of the kind you think really ought to be born and written down; maybe the world became a little better place because of it. Bolcom once wanted to create a concerto for Benny Goodman, and it shows here, in the echoes of jazz; sometimes I feel that the clarinet impersonates a saxophone. The style is very similar to the mellow ballads from the “Focus” album of Stan Getz. The music does not become sleepy, as Stoltzman does not over-soften his sound. In some places, I am not sure that such a sharp, almost shrill clarinet tone suits the music well.
The finale, where a sweeping carousel waltz meets the Latin swing of Tico-Tico, is very attractive. The music is muscular, modern and brave. Bolcom can find a path to almost every listener, without slipping into kitsch. Stoltzman sings in many voices, with various effects: it seems that no two notes are played the same way. The ending is irrepressibly rollicking. I wish I could hear this work in a live concert – it must be pure delight!
Clare Fisher is mostly known as an arranger – or, better, The arranger. His rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra The Duke, Swee’pee and Me is based on a few well-known melodies by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (nicknamed “Swee’pee” by his friends). The mood is very unified, sweet and smooth, like a wide warm sea of melodies. We hear tunes such as Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, Sophisticated Lady, Johnny Come Lately and others. Everything is, first and foremost, very organic – this is a work of a master, not a standard paraphrase on several tunes, but music that grows out of these melodies as if out of seeds. The instrumentation is often non-trivial. Also, there are some virtuosic places for the soloist. And, considering that Stoltzman was the dedicatee, the performance is expectedly brilliant. The orchestra is sensual and compassionate.
What genre does Commedia belong to? It’s not an overture, not a tone poem. It has something in common with Barber’s School for Scandal, but unlike Barber’s overture, which communicates as a prelude to action, this is the entire action. We see a sequence of theatrical scenes, with plots and roles. The melodies are catchy, and the spirit is cheeky: part Rossini, part Milhaud. This music goes from extrovert to dreamy, to dancing, to nostalgic, to jazzy, and on, and on; it is tasty and juicy as a fresh, crispy apple, with a fiery tarantella at the center. The writing for the orchestra is dense and imaginative; there is much to do for every little instrument. The conductor holds together the music firmly, yet creates a sense of freedom. We get the right setting and lighting for each scene. Sometimes it is over the top, but this must have been the composer’s will.
The recording quality is very good. The booklet contains interesting notes from William Bolcom and Richard Stoltzman about the works, as well as a few reflections by the conductor Gary Sheldon. This disc is a great mood-raiser, excellently performed and recorded. The orchestra sparkles. There is a lot of cheerful and attractive music, and it only gets better on subsequent listenings.