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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

American Music for Clarinet and Piano
John NOVACEK (b.1964)
Four Rags for Two Jons
(2006) [12:28]
Paquito D’RIVERA (b.1948)
The Cape Cod Files
(2009) [22:52]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942) [10:49]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Three Preludes (1926) (arr. James Cohn) [7:26]
I Got Rhythm (1930) (arr. James Cohn) [2:24]
Jon Manasse (clarinet); Jon Nakamatsu (piano)
rec. December 2009, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, New York, USA
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907508 [55:58]

Experience Classicsonline

This is a terrific program of four compact works for clarinet and piano, celebrating different intersections between chamber music and American folk and jazz styles. A really impressive number of idioms are squeezed in here, thanks in part to two brand-new compositions by John Novacek and Paquito D’Rivera. Performers Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu are obviously having as good a time as we are.

John Novacek, a concert pianist and ragtime enthusiast, wrote his Four Rags for Two Jons for these players, as the name suggests. Each of the short pieces is an old-fashioned rag, albeit with unconventional structures and harmonies. They feature strutting piano accompaniments and a clarinet part that would pose challenges for any jazz virtuoso. There are also other hurdles to be overcome, as in the finale, when the clarinetist is asked to shout something rather surprising. It’s all in good fun and it all is good fun.

Paquito D’Rivera, a celebrated Cuban saxophonist and sometime clarinetist, seems to have also written his piece here specifically for the “Two Jons”. The Cape Cod Files is a four-movement sonata in all but name, with each part in homage to a specific musical figure: Benny Goodman (Benny @ 100), Astor Piazzolla (Bandoneón), Ernesto Lecuona (Lecuonerías), and Chiquita, a “diminutive Cuban vaudeville singer” (Chiquita Blues). Though I don’t know Chiquita, the evocations of the other three are subtle and feel impressively “right”; in “Bandoneón”, for instance, D’Rivera chooses to evoke both Piazzolla’s rhythms and his unique brand of melancholy. “Lecuonerías” is in effect a cadenza for the clarinetist, who loops and dances about in a sparkling work much like the cadenza from Copland’s concerto.

From these premiere recordings we move on to two more famous composers, albeit not in familiar music: Leonard Bernstein’s startlingly neglected Clarinet Sonata, and Gershwin as arranged by James Cohn. The Bernstein, two short movements adding up to eleven minutes, is a masterpiece in miniature, and rather more distant from jazz than the rest of the disc. Its movements have natural flow and form a cohesive structure. The music itself is immediately appealing in an early-modern American way: a blend of folk and late romantic tenderness, a tune which sounds like the scherzo from Sibelius’s Seventh but in a very different context, and suggestions of the clarinet music Copland would write several years later. The fact that Bernstein was 24 when he wrote the piece, at the beginning of his career, hints at his extraordinary talent.

The program finishes with Gershwin’s Three Preludes, skilfully arranged for clarinet and piano by James Cohn, and a short encore of “I Got Rhythm”. This is all unabashed fun, and the duo are in high spirits. Jon Manasse’s solos as sassy and improvisatory as can be.

Indeed, there’s really little to be said about the performances except that they are everything that could be desired. Jon Manasse is a soulful clarinetist with a bright, clear sound well-suited to the music and Jon Nakamatsu an excellent accompanist. On a previous Harmonia Mundi album he proved to be a superb Gershwin soloist in his own right. They play the two works which were composed for them with appropriate dedication and care, and the Bernstein gets royal treatment. Alternate recordings exist, including clarinet legends Richard Stoltzman on RCA and Stanley Drucker on Sony. Michael Collins plays these arrangements of the Gershwin preludes in a new Chandos disc called “The Virtuoso Clarinet”, and his tone is, if anything, even jazzier and spunkier. The main reason to seek out the “Two Jons” disc, if you are so inclined, is the eclectic but well-unified program. These four works are instinctive disc-mates and form an enjoyable narrative.

The recorded sound is natural and there are impressively few clicks or intakes of breath. Harmonia Mundi’s booklet is admirable as always. In other words, this CD is an hour spent in very enjoyable company.

Brian Reinhart






















































































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