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Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975)
Souvenirs de voyage (1967) [25:10]
David DEL TREDICI (b.1937)
Magyar Madness (2006) [43:52]
Fine Arts Quartet
Michel Lethiec (clarinet)
rec. live, Saint Michel de Cuxa, Prades, France, 3 August 2013 (Herrmann), 27 July 2015 (Del Tredici)
NAXOS 8.559796 [69:02]

Another valuable contribution to Naxos's burgeoning American Classics series. Here we given live performances of two American Clarinet Quintets; Bernard Herrmann's uncharacteristically muted and reflective Souvenirs de voyage coupled with David del Tredici's sprawling Magyar Madness.
Souvenirs de voyage was Herrmann's last concert work, although he was to live another eight years. The work sprung from an artistically rewarding period in Herrmann's life. He had just completed the long-hoped-for recording of his opera Wuthering Heights; his professional relationship with François Truffaut was developing, as was his personal one with Norma Shepherd - who would become his third wife. Do not expect this score to contain any of the overtly extreme musical and sonic effects Herrmann could create in his film scores. Cast in three movements, as the title suggests, these are reminiscences of places, images and events. Herrmann was often open to literary inspiration, too, hence the opening Lento molto tranquillo was inspired by A. E. Housman's [bad Naxos proof-reading (stone in glass houses?), allowing HousEman to slip through in the liner note] On Wenlock Edge. In the liner, Frank K. DeWald picks out the structure of the music, but it is the overall sense of gently lyrical musing and regret that lingers in the memory. A piece as about out of step with any music - popular or classical/contemporary - of its own time as one can imagine. Which gives it the striking sense of being a deeply personal, almost introspective piece. This is by no means the only recording - there are other versions from Julian Bliss and the excellent Tippett Quartet on Signum, The Texas Chamber Ensemble on Albany, and the only other version I know from the Lyric Arts Quartet with Jeffrey C. Lerner on Bay Cities. The latter group takes a full three and a half minutes longer than the new Naxos disc, but the spirit is very similar. The Fine Arts Quartet is excellent at evoking this late/neo-Romantic sound world, with leader Ralph Evans' violin sweetly sensuous with a tight ardent vibrato. I am not as keen on Michel Lethiec's clarinet playing. This is simply a matter of taste, because clearly Lethiec is a fine player. In pushing his expressive envelope I find some of his phrasing a little inelegant with an occasional bulge. Lerner on Bay Cities has a more ethereal fragile sound which somehow chimes for me in this work.

The central Berceuse is, again, inspired by an exterior source; J M Synge's Riders to the Sea. Another slip in the liner - the original work is described as a novel instead of a play. From a gently rocking opening, the central strings-only writing gives ample opportunities for the quality of the Fine Arts players to shine through. In the liner to the Bay Cities disc Steven C. Smith writes; "one can envision a cloud-drenched, autumnal sunset by the Irish coast, Herrmann's swaying dreamlike rhythm for strings and sighing clarinet appoggiaturas rising like wave crests against their foundation." - just so. The closing Andantino Canto Amoroso was inspired by J.M.W. Turner's Venetian paintings and the opening high-lying violin duet melody in thirds has more than the hint of a gondolier's song about it. Although 'brighter' in tone than the preceding music, this is still music that does not manage to shed its haunted mood altogether. A muted tarantella for the strings suggest to Smith "distant revelry", although even the energy this tries to inject into the music is short-lived, and the music returns to the opening violin duetting before gently fading away into the wisp of memory. Its strength is also its potential weakness; Herrmann sticks resolutely to his chosen mood and vocabulary in this work - again I sense deeply personal motivations for this - without any pandering to a populist audience. That the work and the performance here do not let the attention wander must mean that these were choices that worked. On balance I would say my allegiance would stay with the Lyric Arts performance, because they make a virtue out of the piece’s limited expressive range even more than the Fine Arts. That said, this is a very fine performance - no apparent technical issues at all for its live provenance - the only reminder of that being the retention of audience applause at the end of both works - more enthusiastically for the Herrmann, it has to be said.

Recorded at the same Festival Pablo Casals, but two years earlier, was the huge Magyar Madness by David del Tredici. There are a fair number of clarinet quintets in the repertoire, although the Brahms and Mozart tend to dominate any concert appearances, with the former the only one I can think of that comes anywhere near the length [43:52] of this work. There is less competition on disc for this work, too. Although the disc cover claims "World Premiere recording" status, there is another version from the Orion quartet on the eONE label. I assume the Naxos version was recorded first even if it was released second.

In this Quintet, Del Tredici takes no prisoners in terms of structure or form - the finale of this three movement work - Grand Rondo à la Hongrois - is longer at 25:19 than the whole of the Herrmann work that precedes it, or indeed the combined length of its own two sister movements [12:10 + 6:23]. In order the three sections are titled; "Passionate Knights", "Interlude: Contentment" and "Magyar Madness". My knowledge of Del Tredici's work is limited [although his Tattoo on DG conducted by Bernstein is strikingly impressive], but he does seem to be a composer, who likes to baulk convention. So the work opens with immediate high levels of dissonance and instrumental conflict. This style of music seems to suit Lethiec more - overtly expressive and willing to challenge the listener's expectations from the instrument. Again, in this he is brilliantly abetted by the fully committed and dynamic playing of the Fine Arts Quartet. In both works the balance between the clarinet and the four stringed instruments is very well handled by producer/engineer Etienne Graindorge who uses the church acoustic to give the ensemble a warm but not overly resonant acoustic.

The curious thing with Del Tredici's style is that he delights in merging big dissonant gestures with phrases that could have sprung from Brahms in a cantankerous mood. It certainly keeps the listener on their toes and it must make huge demands on all the players, so again all praise for the remarkable level of precision achieved in this live performance. After several listening I have to say I am struggling to 'like' this music, although my admiration for it grows. But it does seem that this mixing up of a stream of musical consciousness is part of the Del Tredici musical DNA. If it applies within movements, it also applies across this work. Hence the second movement - for strings alone - is a transcription for quartet of a 1998 song for baritone and piano. Del Tredici himself describes this as "sweetly ardent, lyrical and contented". For sure it is an easily appealing section and one that gives the clarinettist a good break before tackling the imposing finale, but I do not quite understand how it fits into the work's wider scheme. However, it provides further proof of the excellence of the Fine Arts Quartet and I could imagine it having a life as a stand-alone six minute quartet miniature.

Miniature is not a word to be associated with sprawling finale - inspired apparently by hearing Beethoven's String Quartet Op.130 with the original Grosse Fugue as the closing movement. The commissioning clarinettist David Krakauer asked for some Klezmer inspired music - he got Hungarian. Quite how Krakauer felt about this - he was also part of an ensemble was called "Klezmer Madness" - is not elucidated. Here Lethiec is absolutely in his element and he is supported by theatrically exciting playing by the Fine Arts. Del Tredici is quoted in the liner as saying; "the idea of literally speeding up each appearance of the theme over the course of an entire movement - of creating a goulash of musical frenzy - gripped me." Frenzy is an entirely apt description for the performance here - again I have nothing but praise for all the players, who manage to stay true to the wild character of this music without sacrificing a jot of technical finesse or ensemble. I particularly like the fleeting chimerical passages [around 14:00], where the music skitters around in half-light shadows - very hard to bring off successfully - just making these potentially disjointed-sounding sections hang together is a huge performing challenge. This is something of a challenge for listeners too - despite several concentrated listenings, I am struggling to hear the movement as the coherent whole it undoubtedly is. So my failing - although the music has passages of relatively high dissonance on that level this is not hard to engage with. There is a strong sense that Del Tredici is essentially a tonal composer and certainly one who sounds quite unlike any other, and he makes little if any use of extended instrumental techniques so probably I would describe him as a modern traditional composer.

So a valuable disc capturing excellent live performances of these two very individual works. Good engineering backs up the quality of the music-making. Something for those interested in different aspects of American Neo-Romanticism.

Nick Barnard



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