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Night Thoughts
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Sonatina (1983) (Con fuoco [1:56]
Night Thoughts. Lento [3:56]
Scherzando [2:56])
Peter BENARY (b. 1934)
Quodlibet (1975) [11:50]
Marco TUTINO (b. 1954)
Variazione con temi (1991) [2:21]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Sonata Op. 10 [12:11]
Dennis KAM (b. 1942)
Mix Five (a) [6:26]
Paul HARVEY (b. 1935)
Three Etudes on Themes of Gershwin (I Got Rhythm [3:03]
Summertime [4:21]
It Ain’t Necessarily So [2:50])
Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)
Sonatina Op. 27 (1957)
ANON Cumha craobh nan teud [2:28]
Dimitri Ashkenazy (clarinet)
rec. 1996-2014, All Saints’ Church, Petersham UK; Gusman Concert Hall, University of Miami, USA; Studio Shüpbach, Prangins, Switzerland

The piano has a large repertoire and that for the violin, though much smaller, is quite respectable. When one comes to woodwind instruments, there are far fewer works for solo performance. The fact that it is not possible to provide a bass or even sound two notes at the same time makes the restrictions very severe. Add to this that even with the best playing the timbre of the solo instrument can become monotonous and you can see why enthusiasts for wind instruments tend to eschew unaccompanied works. Like Mozart, people tend to write for them in groups, or, like Hindemith, in duets with piano. So it is a severe challenge for a recital for solo clarinet to appeal beyond players and clarinet-fanciers.

In the sleeve-note, which Dimitri Ashkenazy wrote himself, he rather coyly acknowledges that he is the son of ‘yes, you’ve guessed it’, referring to the pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. He plays a standard French style clarinet and his technique is refined. His intonation is good though not perfect, he is as fluent as you could wish and there are very few squeals, squawks or honks. I don’t mean that he makes the mistakes of a beginner – I am referring to very minor misjudgements which would pass unnoticed in an orchestral or chamber work but which this very exposed setting cannot obscure. His expressive range tends to be narrower than I would wish: he hardly ever conveys excitement, and in lyrical passages his phrasing lacks subtlety and he ends phrases bluntly. There are no extraneous noises, such as the clatter of keywork or sharp intakes of breath.

There is a varied choice of works, most of them relatively recent. It is always a pleasure to come across something by Richard Rodney Bennett, and to reflect again what a loss it was to the world of composed music when he decided to devote most of his energies to jazz. His sonatina is a characteristically varied and attractive work; the slow movement gives its title to this disc. Karg-Elert’s sonata was a discovery: this is a late romantic work – think Reger or early Schoenberg but nothing as adventurous as Berg’s clarinet pieces with piano. It is amazing how the composer manages to sustain the idiom with none of the harmonic supports you expect. I suppose the big cor anglais solos in the third act of Tristan und Isolde set a precedent for this. Miklós Rózsa’s sonatina is also attractive, somewhat reminiscent of his compatriot Bartók’s Contrasts. I found Peter Benary’s Quodlibet and Dennis Kam’s Mix Five (a) rather dreary; they are both known personally to the player and I think his friendship trumped his judgement here. On the other hand I found the Variazone con temi of Marco Tutino, another unfamiliar name, to be a really good display piece and not too long. The first and third of Paul Harvey’s Gershwin studies are also very demanding and would make good competition or test pieces. The final item is a seventeenth century folksong used by Maxwell Davies.

Given what Ashkenazy does include I am surprised by his omitting what to my mind are clear masterpieces in this form: Stravinsky’s Three pieces, though he did record these before in a valuable disc of Stravinsky’s chamber works conducted by his father (Decca 448 177-2 or 4738102); also Messiaen’s Abîme des oiseaux from the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, arguably the finest single work for solo clarinet, unless it is Maxwell Davies’ The Seven Brightnesses, which he must surely know.

The recordings have been assembled over a period of nearly twenty years and from three different venues. However, the engineers have consistently provided an attractive sound, with plenty of ambience but not boomy. For Dimitri Ashkenazy this project is clearly a labour of love, but I doubt whether it will appeal much beyond the clarinet-fanciers I mentioned.

Stephen Barber



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