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Ognjen Popović (clarinet)
Mirjana Rajić (piano)
rec. January 2020, Sächsisches Landesgymnasium für Musik Dresden, Germany GENUIN GEN20557 [63:59]
Both clarinetist Ognjen Popović and pianist Mirjana Rajić were born in Serbia, Rajić in Belgrade and Popović in Pancĕvo, some twelve miles from Belgrade. The two first met, however, when they were studying in Munich “about 20 years ago” (quoted from their joint booklet essay), Rajić with Bianca Bodalià and Popović with Ulf Rodenhauser. While in Munich they gave some concerts together, before going off in separate directions. Rajić based herself in Dresden where, alongside her career as a performer, she teaches at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber and the Landesmusikgymnasium Dresden; Popović, on the other hand, returned to Serbia. He is currently Principal Clarinet of the Belgrade Philharmonic and teaches at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade and has worked widely as a soloist across Europe. Now they have worked together again, to produce this attractive CD, fittingly entitled Reunion.
They have chosen not to record any of the most famous pieces for clarinet and piano, such as the Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata, op. 120 or Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, op. 108. Instead they have put together an engaging programme of pieces which range from the familiar (Saint-Saëns) through the slightly less well-known to the very little-known. The programme opens with a charming, if lightweight, piece by Iwan Müller. Müller was born in Reval (now Talinn) in Estonia. His youthful accomplishment as a clarinetist was such that before he was 20 he was employed at the Russian court in St. Petersburg. He went on to tour extensively across Europe. He was constantly seeking to improve the instrument (especially in terms of the number of keys and a new key mechanism) and to widen its range. He developed a new form of clarinet known as the clarinette omnitonique. In the words of Curt Sachs (The History of Musical Instruments, 1942, p.413) “Iwan Müller created the modern clarinet with its thirteen keys”. By 1811 he was based in Paris, where he found the financial support necessary to begin the manufacture of this new instrument.
Insofar as Müller is remembered nowadays, it is primarily in terms of what he did to develop the clarinet. But he also wrote extensively for the instrument, producing six clarinet concertos, and a good deal of chamber music for the clarinet. A fair sample of such music can be heard on a Naxos CD (8.572885), which contains performances of two Clarinet Quartets (published as a pair in 1820) as well as four pieces for clarinet and piano (including Le château de Madrid), as well as one of Müller’s most popular pieces amongst his contemporaries, Souvenir de Dobbéran for two clarinets (or clarinet and horn) and piano – an early example of what has been called the ‘musical postcard’. That term might well be applied to Le château de Madrid, another piece of superior salon music, full of colour and rhythm. Le château is a polonaise in three sections, with hints of the bolero also apparent and it is played by Popović and Rajić with a light touch and evident pleasure – pleasure which I, at least, found easy to share. They resist the obvious temptation to overdo the Spanish flavour while demonstrating plenty of the music’s character. The result makes a happy, and inviting, opening to the disc.
Another more or less forgotten name is that of Norbert Burgmüller. His case, however, is rather different from that of Müller. Burgmüller died at the age of just 26. Some years ago, when reviewing a disc which contained some of his piano music, I observed that “were a novelist to set out to create the figure of a romantic artist he or she might well come up with someone who had more than a passing resemblance to Norbert Burgmüller. An unconventional upbringing; doomed love affairs; epilepsy and other illness; a bohemian life-style; excessive drinking; a personality prone to melancholy; neglect during his lifetime; an early death in doubtful circumstances (he drowned, but it is unclear whether he committed suicide or suffered some kind of seizure); Burgmüller ticks a great many of the stereotypical boxes.” After his death many critics dismissed his work with words like “bizarre” and called his compositions mere “curiosities”. But he was praised by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Robert Schumann, who wrote, “After Franz Schubert’s untimely death, none has moved us more painfully than that of Burgmüller. Instead of decimating the ranks of mediocrity around us, destiny has taken our most commanding talent”. Schumann described Burgmüller’s first symphony, written 1831-33, as “one of the most significant and noble symphonies of recent times” (see E.F. Jensen, ‘Norbert Burgmüller and Robert Schumann’, The Musical Quarterly, 74:4 (1990), pp.550-565). Most of those who have listened to some of the recordings of Burgmüller’s music which have appeared in recent years – such as the two volumes of his String Quartets played by the Mannheim Quartet (MDG 3360993/0994) or the selection of his Songs on Querstad (QRST 0916) – will, I suspect, agree that (not unusually) these distinguished composers were wiser than the critics. Of this Duo for Clarinet and Piano, Popović and Rajić observe that it is “full of rich harmonies and warm as well as mostly soft tones of the clarinet and piano” and describe the composer as “the talented young Burgmüller”. Indeed, Burgmüller’s music, almost universally, shows a young composer learning from Beethoven and Schubert (without merely imitating either) and producing early romantic music which is already attractive but also contains the promise of more than his early death allowed him to bring to fulfilment. This Duo, written when Burgmüller was 24, is both inventive and lyrical. The opening Allegro has a beautiful theme which, in the lightness of touch with which Burgmüller handles it, makes one think of Mendelssohn. The Larghetto which follows has a further attractive melody to offer along with some unexpected moments in the relationship between the two instruments, while the closing Allegro repeats material from the opening movement before a change in tonality leads to a mildly dramatic climax which has a relatively conventional sense of closure. The performance by Popović and Rajić is unhurried throughout (indeed the differences in tempo among the three movements are rather slight), which allows them to relish Burgmüller’s ideas. This is a work which ought to find a place in recital programmes with greater frequency.
Another relatively little-known name is that of Miguel Yuste. Yuste was born at Alcalá del Valle, in the Province of Cádiz. He was orphaned at the age of eight and was brought up thereafter in an orphanage in Madrid. There he was taught the clarinet and played in a wind band. After leaving the orphanage he was soon playing busily in a variety of musical contexts in Madrid. He quickly established himself as a well-regarded soloist; so much so that he gave the Spanish premiere of Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata in 1896 (in Madrid). He was later to become Clarinet Professor at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid, from 1910 to 1949. Malena Rachel McLaren in her D.Mus dissertation, Miguel Yuste: His Works for Clarinet and HisInfluence onthe Spanish Clarinet School of Playingin the Twentieth Century (University of North Texas, 2005), writes that “Miguel Yuste and his music are pivotal in the establishment of the … clarinet tradition in Spain”. In the conclusion of that dissertation, McClaren observes that “the strong clarinet tradition in Spain is accompanied by a rich repertoire of music for clarinet that is largely unkown outside Spanish borders.” That remains true even of Yuste himself, the central figure in that tradition, as instrumentalist, teacher and composer. Yuste’s works for clarinet and piano cannot be dated precisely. Most of his compositions seem to have been written for use as examination and audition pieces at the Conservatory in Madrid. As such, they provide opportunities for the clarinetist to demonstrate the quality of his/her technique. Yuste’s Estudio Mélodico consists of a single movement in a basic sonata form (with a four-measure introduction). After an exposition in G minor, the development is in the relative major key, B♭, with the recapitulation returning to G minor. The work is basically tonal, though there is quite frequent use of chromaticism. There are many debts to Spanish folk music, as in the fondness for “phrases which end with an accent on the penultimate note or beat” (McClaren). The primary melody is relatively simple but is heavily ornamented in the recapitulation. While Estudio Mélodico is hardly an overlooked masterpiece, it is surely a work which, like Burgmüller’s Duo, deserves to find a place in the repertoire of many a clarinetist. There is a yearning beauty to the theme which opens the work, when played with the skill that Ognjen Popović brings to it; the B section of this ‘sonata’ is perhaps less individual and relatively workmanlike, but the recapitulation is a delight, with its tracery of complex ornament.
Yuste might have called that piece a ‘Sonatina’, the title Malcom Arnold gave to a comparable work, premiered by the late Colin Davis (before his fame as a conductor) in 1951. This work will, I assume, be more familiar to British (and perhaps to some other) listeners than the works by Müller, Burgmüller and Yuste discussed so far, so I shall treat it more briefly. Its three short movements (here the whole work is completed in less than eight minutes) contain some very varied music. The opening Allegro con Brio has three distinct themes; I particularly enjoyed Popović and Rajić’s treatment of the decidedly jazzy second theme. The central Andantino is played with great delicacy and tenderness, while the final movement does exactly ‘what it says on the tin’, being marked ‘Furioso’. Popović and Rajić clearly enjoy themselves (and communicate their pleasure) in this dance movement which doesn’t pause for breath. This is an exciting reading of an appealing work full of contrasts.
Every wind or woodwind player will know the name of Eugène Bozza. Every piece of Bozza’s music that I have heard was well-crafted and melodic, free of any modishness, any chasing after critically fashionable idioms. His Aria was written, in 1936, for alto saxophone and piano and dedicated to saxophonist Marcel Mule. It has since been transposed for many other instruments, including clarinet. The piece is indebted to the third movement ‘aria’ in Bach’s Organ Pastorale in F, BWV 590. There is an introspective, even melancholy quality to the music, the ‘simplicity’ of which is deceptive, so far as performers of it are concerned. The booklet essay by Popović and Rajić points to some of the challenges: “Despite sounding simple and relaxed, this piece makes very high demands of the performers. It calls for true mastery of breathing technique and legato, as well as constant control while shaping the extended phrases. The chords on the piano have to be subtly shaded and played with a fine, sensitive touch in order to support the beautiful melody and extended lines of the clarinet.” Despite all those challenges Popović and Rajić add “We simply cannot resist playing this piece.” The performance they give certainly seems to meet all the requirements they enumerate – I can’t remember hearing a more persuasive reading of this piece (on any instrument). The musical empathy between clarinetist and pianist is – as it is elsewhere on the disc – very impressive.
The disc closes (I haven’t forgotten the Saint-Saëns Sonata) with two pieces by Ognjen Popović himself. I haven’t previously heard any music written by him, and I don’t remember seeing any references to him as a composer. The booklet essay tells us that ‘Banat Dance’ was written in 2015, and that Banat is a region in which the town of his birth, Panćevo, is to be found, but which also extends across parts of Hungary and Romania. It is in the rich folk traditions of this region that ‘Banat Dance’ has its roots, though the piece has some elements of jazz too and, indeed, echoes of the waltz. The result is a vivid and colourful evocation of Balkan culture, in a piece full of shifting meters. It is clearly a piece in which both performers feel at home, a piece grounded in their own origins. ‘In My Heart’ (2018), we are told, fuses “classic, jazz and pop elements” in pursuit of music which is “calm, sensual and melancholic” (quotations from the booklet essay). I find it a good deal less striking, and less memorable, than ‘Banat Dance’, perhaps because its idiom is more ‘international’ than ‘local’.
The major work on this disc – and the best known – is, of course, Saint-Saëns’ Clarinet Sonata in E-flat major, op.167. Given all that I have already said about the musicianship of Ognjen Popović and Mirjana Rajić, it is no surprise to find that their performance of this sonata is impressive and thoroughly appealing. In their booklet essay clarinetist and pianist tell us, “When we started playing together in Munich, this sonata was the first work that we worked on and performed. We immediately fell in love with it and our love for this wonderful music will never end.” I don’t think it is fanciful to say that one can hear that love in their performance. In the opening melody (in 12/8) of the Allegretto first movement Popović’s lyrical clarinet floats above the eighth notes of Rajić’s piano with a beauty and naturalness that feel almost beyond art. The Allegro Animato which follows is, in essence, a gavotte and is played here with a charming sense of fun, while remaining dignified. In the Lento movement, the extreme registers of both instruments are exploited in Saint-Saens’ writing. The opening of the movement is played with true gravity, the relationship between the two instruments articulated with considerable subtlety. For all the gravity of mood, Popović and Rajić keep the music moving forward until, in the second half of the movement a radically different sense of repose is perfectly achieved. The quiet opening of the last movement (Molto allegro) does little to prepare one for the eruption of very rapid lines from the clarinet (which Popovič handles with disarming ease) until the lyrical melody from the first movement returns. The transitions into this reprise and out of it into further dazzlingly fast music are both handled very well. So, too, is the alternation between excitement and calmness in the final phase of the work. This account of Saint-Saëns’ Sonata does justice to both the shape and the variety of the work and, in doing so, makes clear its underlying unity.
All in all, an excellent recital, well played and recorded, which introduces the listener to some little-known repertoire and also includes a top-class performance of the canonical sonata by Saint-Saëns.
Iwan MÜLLER (1786-1854) Le château de Madrid, Op. 79 (1840) [7:40] Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Clarinet Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 167, R. 147 (1921) [16:05] Norbert BURGMÜLLER (1810-1836)
Duo for Piano & Clarinet in E-Flat Major, Op. 15 (1834) [11:48] Miguel YUSTE (1870-1947) Estudio melódico, Op. 33 (1910-15) [6:41] Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Sonatina for Clarinet & Piano, Op. 29 (1951) [7:50] Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991) Aria (1936) [3:32] Ognjen POPOVIĆ (b.1977) Banat Dance (2015) [5:17] In My Heart (2018) [4:59]