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Spring Forward
Peter SCHICKELE (b. 1935)
Spring Forward [22:15]
Richard DANIELPOUR (b. 1956)
Clarinet Quintet “The Last Jew in Hamadan” [18:49]
Aaron Jay KERNIS (b. 1960)
Perpetual Chaconne [18:28]
David Shifrin (clarinet)
Miró Quartet (Schickele)
Dover Quartet (Danielpour)
Jasper String Quartet (Kernis)
rec. 2016
DELOS DE3528 [59:36]

It was a surprise to learn that Peter Schickele was 79 when he wrote Spring Forward. It sounds very much what you would expect from a young composer, so Schickele is obviously still young at heart. He is also a humourist, and that also shows in this truly magical and delightful quintet. I read in the booklet notes that he took a liking to the idea of playing clarinet because his mother had one from her college days. However, a clarinet teacher in town on hearing him play told him that he already had so many bad habits that he would be better starting another instrument. He became Fargo, North Dakota’s only bassoonist, and any fan of the Coen’s film Fargo will find that easy to believe! It is not something he has never regretted, for as he says orchestras have greater difficulty in finding a bassoonist, while clarinettists are far more numerous.

The quintet is in five movements, each an absolute delight. Once you know about Schickele’s humourist side, you can see where the fun he injects into the composition comes from. He is clearly a worthy successor to both Gerard Hoffnung and Victor Borge. He came up with ‘discoveries’ of music by 21st child of Johann Sebastian Bach (who actually had 20), called PDQ Bach!

The first movement has the subtitle Reawakening. The clarinet sounds just as if it has done, leaping into action as if from some long sleep. There are some jazz connections here; the cello plays a bassist’s role while the others ‘dance’ around it in a puckish mood. The clarinet has a beautifully rounded sound, and plays with the merry attitude of a deeper sounding flute. The second movement is given the title Cantilena. An ever so slightly more serious mood takes over but always with a background suggestion of its former self, which soon cannot be contained any longer. Now we hear undertones of klezmer, which I imagine is never far from the thoughts of someone writing for clarinet, since the instrument is so closely associated with it. The short Scherzo fully returns to the jolly nature of the first movement. It paves the way for a completely contrasting gentle Interlude that injects a more serious note, leading to the final movement which recalls A memorable Perfect Picnic with folksy rhythms evoking happy time spent “at sunset on the Claremont Estate on the east side of the Hudson River”. This quintet was a brilliant introduction to the music of a composer who is seriously worth further exploration.

Richard Danielpour is a composer whose music I have reviewed before and again quite recently. He is an extremely thoughtful tunesmith with some truly original ideas. This quintet is no exception, with its intriguing subtitle The Last Jew in Hamadan. Hamadan is a town in Iran where the composer’s father and maternal grandfather were born. It once had a sizeable Jewish population, and is in fact the biblical city of Esther. Religious tolerance, however, seems to have died with the 1979 revolution. Danielpour learned that one of his uncles was executed by the present regime, another escaped from prison, and a third managed to escape to Turkey dressed as a mullah. These facts makes it all the more sad that over time that population has shrunk so much that once – on reading in the New York Times that there were but 13 Jews still living there – Richard Danielpour realised that there would soon be none at all left. Hence his telling title.

The composer describes the quintet’s first movement as memories of when he lived in Teheran as a child for 11 months. One can hear the hustle and bustle of a melting pot of cultures, including some Jewish-sounding melodies that sit happily in the overall Middle Eastern musical setting. The second movement, he explains, is an interpretation of what he senses the country has become. Gone is the nervous energy of the first movement, replaced as it is by a melody that is slow and melancholy. The melody seems to emphasise the lack of fun in a life that is dictated by strict interpretation and observance of Koranic discipline by the country’s overzealous and unflinching religious masters. There is a sad and fragile beauty in this music that is infectious, along with a sense of regret that things have changed so much for the worse since 1979. The music peters out as if all energy has been lost.

Aaron Jay Kernis, the youngest composer of the three, was also a fairly young recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music: in 1998 for his second String Quartet. I will not begin to pretend that I understand the technical explanation of what he was seeking to express in this single-movement work which explores different ideas of treating a theme and variations. His quintet begins lyrically enough but soon becomes full of nervous energy and restlessness, which slows down when the theme seems to have become worn out. It then gathers a new momentum. Its lyricism returns for much of this second period but eventually the fractious nature resumes. The theme appears as a fragmented entity which then once again seems to run out of steam in the quintet’s closing minutes, and the work fades away to a whispered ending. I wish my musical understanding was sufficient to discuss the technical side but I can say that I enjoyed it, and always applaud composers who continue to explore new ways of expression.

I find myself repeating the same impressions when reviewing works by American composers: they are always fascinating in their exploration of new ideas, and long may it remain so. There is an implication that all three compositions are world premičre recordings, yet in the information concerning recording dates and venues that is only said to be in respect of Danielpour’s quintet. Whether that is the case or whether all three are, I do not know. Even so, all three are performed by three extremely talented quartets. The unifying element is David Shifrin as clarinettist. This hugely experienced performer rises to every challenge in these three quite different works, and everyone involved in the entire project deserves accolades for their performances. This is a disc that challenges the listener to give the closest attention to the music but pays off in a rewarding experience of three composers all of whom have produced thoroughly engaging and contrasting works.

Steve Arloff
Performance details
Miró Quartet (Daniel Ching & William Fedkenheuer (violins); John Largess (viola); Joshua Gindele (cello))
Dover Quartet (Joel Link & Bryan Lee (violins); Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt (viola); Camden Shaw (cello))
Jasper String Quartet (J.Freivogel & Sae Chonabayashi (violins); Sam Quintal (viola); Rachel Henderson Freivogel (cello))
rec. Phoenix Chamber Music Society Winter Festival, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, March 9, 2016 (Schickele)
Chamber Music Northwest, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA, July 15, 2016, world premičre live recording (Danielpour)
Morse recital Hall, Yale School of Music, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, September 29, 2016 (Kernis)

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