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Sinfonia Iuventus and its Soloists - Volume 1
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Première Rapsodie for clarinet and orchestra (1909-11) [8:31]*
La mer (1903-5) [24:41]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Duett-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon and string orchestra (1947) [18:26]*+
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Tema con variazioni for clarinet and string orchestra (1974, orch. 1978) [8:29]
Waldemar Żarów (clarinet)*; Alicja Kieruzalska (bassoon)+
Polska Orkiestra Sinfonia Iuventus/Gabriel Chmura
rec. Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, September 2009
CD ACCORD ACD 162-2 [60:19]

There's a lot of good clarinet players turning up on records these days. The resulting expansion of the repertoire beyond the standard Mozart and Weber concertos - works by Crusell and Krommer-Kramář have proven particularly felicitous additions - has been a blessing for listeners, who get to enjoy a lot of well-played music.
The plethora of first-class players can however make life difficult for reviewers. Unlike, say, pianists or even flautists, virtuoso clarinetists - Richard Stoltzman's curious, manufactured vibrato aside - tend to sound very much alike: the high range is clear and silvery, the low chalumeau notes are dark and the registral seams in the awkward midrange are dexterously covered. It isn't always easy to pinpoint, or to describe, what musical and tonal characteristics might help us tell one player from the next.
If you listen carefully to Waldemar Żarów - the principal clarinetist of the Iuventus Orchestra, who is being showcased here - you'll discover that the crisp, precise-tongued attack he uses in detached passages still allows each tone to maintain a round, pillowy quality. He turns this technique to particularly good use in a deft, undulating reading of Debussy's Première rapsodie.
Żarów's individuality as a musician is easier to fathom. He unfailingly elicits from the rhythms, particularly in triple meters and subdivisions, a grace and buoyancy that animates the long musical line. This brings the best out of Jean Françaix's Tema con variazioni, originally for clarinet and piano, but played here using the composer's transparent string accompaniment. In this performance, Żarów allows himself a few rough sustained high tones, presumably intentionally - given this composer's sometimes ironic demeanour - but they're still a distraction. The soloist and orchestra have Françaix's harmonic and rhythmic quirks well in hand, and draw plenty of character from both the lively and the more spacious variations.
Alicja Kieruzalska, the principal bassoonist of Iuventus, joins Żarów in a sprightly, lively account of the Strauss Duett-Concertino. Her dusky timbre, full without approaching the saxophonish density of some players, nicely complements Żarów's brighter tone. She matches his waltz-like buoyancy, especially in the finale. The two generally "play off" each other well; only the brief passage of overlapping syncopations beginning at 4:08 of the opening Allegro moderato seems not quite to line-up precisely.
The plan for the Iuventus series is for each programme to include a straight symphonic score along with the works showcasing the chosen soloist; here it's La mer. Conductor Gabriel Chmura plays it a bit slower than usual, relying on precise rhythmic articulation, particularly in accompaniment figures, to generate the musical structures. He also brings out the broad musical line with hairpin dynamics. Among recent recorded outings, it's a sturdier performance than Tabachnik's (Brussels Philharmonic Recordings), but less sweeping than Masur's (Warner Apex); and it won't challenge anyone's existing favorites.
The youthful chamber orchestra - all the players are thirty years of age or younger - plays handsomely. The solo string introduction to the Strauss is drenched in vibrant tone; the Première rapsodie is clear and airy. The tuttis in La mer become thick and overbearing, especially when the drums are involved, but the engineering may be to blame there.
Despite reservations, a strong contender for the Françaix and the Rapsodie.  

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Masterwork Index: La Mer