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Waiting for Benny: A Tribute to Benny Goodman
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for clarinet and piano, FP 184 (1962) [13:22]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (1941-42) [11:05]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Three Preludes (arr. James Cohn) (1926/87) [7:39]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Pieces (1918) [3:48]
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Benny’s Gig (1962/79) [13:57]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Contrasts, BB 116 (1938-40) [17:28]
Julien Hervé (clarinet), Maud Lovett (violin: Bartók), Jean-Hisanori Sugitani (piano: all except Stravinsky), Ying Lai Green (double bass: Gould)
rec. Conservatoire de Paris, France, 25-28 July 2011
NAXOS 8.573032 [67:17]

When I saw the title of this disc I thought it would be jazz until I noticed the composers. The very first jazz record I ever bought back in 1959 featured Charlie Christian, a brilliant but tragically short-lived guitarist who, along with other band members improvised a piece they entitled Waiting for Benny which was precisely what they were doing at the time.
Benny Goodman is the inspiration behind this disc too since he was the person who caused most of these compositions to be written as their commissioner. Clarinettists have had good cause to thank him ever since as these works are pearls in 20th century clarinet repertoire. What they share is a thorough exploration of all the wonderfully evocative and virtuosic possibilities of this most charismatic of instruments.
All the works on this disc are absolutely fabulous and each of them is a quintessential representative of its creator. If one had to guess who they were it would be pretty obvious in almost every case, apart perhaps from Morton Gould’s since he is less well known than the others.
Poulenc’s sonata has his musical signature so indelibly present on every note there could be no prizes for identifying his hand. The work is shot through with his witty, jaunty, exciting and effervescently fizzing brilliance which makes this work one that once heard is never forgotten. The sonata was long in the gestation and was his last completed work; lying on his desk having been corrected the very day he died on 30 January 1963. The world première was given by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein on 10 April, 1963 but it is comforting to know that at least Poulenc did attend rehearsals by the two musicians who gave its French première later that year, André Boutard and his favourite pianist Jacques Février. It leaps off the page with such verve that it is hard to imagine it taking over four years to be completed. It gives the clarinettist much to do and requires an intricate knowledge of the instrument to produce an affecting performance which it certainly gets here. The two outer movements sparkle with his characteristic wit while the central slow movement is an ocean of calm by comparison full of gorgeously rich melodies.
Leonard Bernstein’s sonata was his first published work written when was only 23 and dedicated to clarinettist David Oppenheim though it was David Glazer who premièred it with Bernstein on piano in April 1942. After a short graceful opening movement the second of the two is an exciting one with alternating speeds and hints of Bernstein’s wonderfully inventive compositional skills. These same skills led to such works as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz band and West Side Story.
George Gershwin had an uncanny knack for producing memorable tunes. His excursions into jazzy works were far more successful than most other ‘classical’ composers. These Three Preludes are perfect examples of just how good he was. The wistfully bluesy tune that forms the second is very typical of a great blues tune while the last is just delightfully ebullient. The music works so well for clarinet and piano that one can easily forget that it was only transcribed for them from its original solo piano work in 1987 by James Cohn.
Stravinsky, a composer who liked to explore all kinds of genres wrote Three Pieces for solo clarinet as early as 1918. He dedicated them to a keen amateur clarinettist in gratitude for his funding the staging of his Histoire du soldat. It was interesting to read that these three short pieces are both the oldest and the best known of all solo clarinet works this being a genre which only emerged in the 20th century. Once again we can see the extent to which Stravinsky was a pathfinder. The notes explain that Stravinsky had heard a jazz band touring Europe and was particularly struck by the clarinettist. He took elements from the concert, especially a blues, to base the first of the three pieces on and used borrowings to help form the other two.
Morton Gould was a great friend of Benny Goodman and he dedicated two clarinet works to him of which Benny’s Gig is one. The notes explain that Gould wrote the first seven sections for Goodman to take on a tour to the USSR in 1962 adding the eighth on the occasion of Goodman’s 70th birthday in 1979. The combination of clarinet and double bass must surely be almost unique but the addition of the bass. Its being plucked rather than bowed, adds a particular jazz vibe to the work which is absolutely delicious with even the slow sections being as much fun as the faster ones. The bass is not purely an accompanying instrument but is given plenty of moments to shine in its own right and it certainly does. Dedicating the final piece Gould wrote “... how many Benny Goodmans are there at any age, or in any age. Congratulations, Benny, and keep playing”.
Bartók wrote Contrasts for Benny Goodman who had sought a work for a trio of clarinet, violin and piano through Josef Szigeti. This developed from one with two pieces in 1938, to a three section work with the slow movement being added. The expanded work received its première on 21 April 1940 with Goodman, Szigeti and Bartók; that’s a concert at which I wish I’d been present. The contrasts referred to are those of the clash between jazz and folk melodies and the rhythms within them. It’s much more complex than may appear requiring an exchange of clarinets at a certain point as well as a retuning of the violin to peasant mode. The three pieces are entitled Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance), Pihenö (Relaxation) and Sebes (Fast Dance). These are exciting and fascinating by turns with a real mix of jazz and peasant rhythms throughout in what must be a unique combination.
The entire disc was a very neat idea and the unifying theme of Benny Goodman has resulted in a disc that presents some really wonderful works for clarinet that will give endless enjoyment to the listener. All the instrumentalists are first class but naturally one must highlight the contribution of the clarinettist Julien Hervé whose technique is both stunning and apparently effortless. It has a gorgeously rich tone and a clarity of sound that is quite breathtaking at times.
It is difficult to praise this disc highly enough as anyone who listens to it will find to their great delight and lasting pleasure.
Steve Arloff