I must admit I had not heard the name of Christine MacDonnell before, and was glad to have this opportunity to discover a very fine clarinet player. The present album shows that she possesses excellent technique and virtuosic abilities. Her sound is clear, without letting any extraneous noises in. It is pleasantly silky, and I was especially impressed by her impeccably smooth legato. Her phrasing is very finely judged.
The programming is smart. In the middle we have three major staples of the clarinet repertoire. There are many good recordings of the Debussy, Poulenc and Schumann works. Yet such is their charm and appeal that a new version is always welcome. These three are framed by two less known works that are nevertheless interesting and rewarding. What lets this album down, in my opinion, is the piano playing. Maybe it is the fault of the instrument or engineers, or is this how Ron Levy chose to play, but his sound is rather dehydrated and percussive throughout. All the softness and pulp are provided by the clarinet but without much help from the piano. It works OK in the more virtuosic and extrovert parts, but left me wishing for more in the lyrical and Romantic places.
The album opens with Leo Weiner’s Peregi Verbunk in a clarinet arrangement. Verbunkos is a Hungarian dance, the uncle of the czardas. Probably the best-known verbunkos is the Rákóczi March in its original form. This genre is sometimes attributed to Gypsies, but mostly because they were the musicians. Still, there is some Gypsy flavor here, and you may notice distant echoes of Monti’s Czardas or Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Unlike them, Weiner’s opus does not follow the slow-fast sequence, and retains the opening slow pace and dark atmosphere. The writing for clarinet is virtuosic, but in a nonchalant way, without the standard bravura.
Debussy’s Première rhapsodie is an exotic nocturne with a few more agitated episodes. The clarinet is versatile and emotional, but the expressionless piano playing does not let this music show all its magical depths.
In the dreamy, melancholic first movement of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Levy and MacDonnell play with restraint, letting the expressive melody to do its work. This works well, and the result is sotto voce, gentle and lyrical. The playful second movement has a good pace, though I’d prefer a softer piano sound. In the last movement, the exuberant outer parts are well done, and convey the mood of ecstatic happiness. The middle episode is played in a rather fast tempo, and that’s where the worst happens. In a couple of places Schumann wrote a “splashing” figure in the piano part. It sounds remarkable when done well, but here it sounds really awkward and brings four moments of musical toothache. No complaints about the clarinet part, though.
The beautiful Sonata by Poulenc is all contrasts and contradictions, starting from the oxymoronic marking of the first movement, Allegro tristamente (“merrily sadly”). The more energetic parts are done very well: the performance being young, sharp, and vigorous. The clownery of the finale especially benefits from a “dry” presentation. The slow episode in the first movement and especially the second movement lose some of their nostalgic glow, due to the unyielding tempo and the hard voice of the piano. MacDonnell exhibits good phrasing, and changes her clarinet’s voice skilfully, from the soft breath to shriek.
James Waterson was a bandmaster to the Viceroy of India, and his Morceau de Concert concludes the program. The Andante part is lush and operatic in the Donizetti vein, while the ensuing Polonaise is a virtuosic showpiece, executed with flair and finesse. The piece is long but not tedious and, though not particularly memorable, it is good while it lasts. Levy’s piano style is at home here, and MacDonnell’s playing is light and smooth. Again, her legato is praiseworthy.
The booklet is one glossy page, so I am not sure whether it can be technically called a booklet. It tells us about the careers of the performers, and does not have even a word about the music. I hope that one day I’ll hear Christine MacDonnell’s clarinet in a better wrapping. She appears to be a really fine musician. Alas, the pianist does not change his style sufficiently for the more Romantic pieces, and this reduces the enjoyment of part of the program, which is otherwise very pleasing.