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Solo clarinet NA56

XX Century Music for Solo Clarinet
Osvaldo LACERDA (1927-2011)
Melodia (1974, rev. 1979) [2:29]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1970)
Three Pieces (1918) [4:19]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Abîme des Oiseaux (1941) [6:51]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sonata for Clarinet (1933) [3:53]
Cláudio SANTORO (1919-1989)
Fantasia sul América (1983) [2:55]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Fantasy (1966) [3:09]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Sequenza IXa (1980) [13:30]
Lied (1983) [4:34]
Ronaldo MIRANDA (b. 1948)
Ludica I (1983) [2:36]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Summertime (arr. Luciano) (1935) [3:42]
Luca Luciano (clarinet)
rec. 2020, Naples, Italy

Instruments capable of producing their own harmony in addition to melody, such as the piano or organ, have rich repertoires of solo works in large-scale forms such as sonatas, fantasias, and suites. Instruments such as the clarinet, on the other hand, which play single-line melodies but can only allude to supporting harmonies, are in a different position. How do composers write unaccompanied music for such an instrument?

This disc offers a range of responses to the challenge in its selection of twentieth century works for solo clarinet. There are three main approaches: pieces that remain anchored in a tonal framework, pieces that explore the outer limits of musicality, and pieces that try to split the difference. Each approach tends to result in short compositions, save for one that dwarfs the others on this disc.

In the first category are the Malcolm Arnold Fantasy, the Lacerda Melodia, and the Gershwin encore. Pushing the boundaries are the two pieces by Luciano Berio, Sequenza IXa and Lied, and the Messiaen Abîme des Oiseaux. In between are the Three Pieces by Stravinsky, the Sonata by John Cage, the Fantasia sul América by Cláudio Santoro and Ludica I by Ronaldo Miranda.

The Arnold Fantasy is so straightforward it sounds almost as if it should have an accompanying piano part but does not. Development of the opening fanfare occupies its three-minute length, as Arnold packs a surprising amount of variety into a limited span. The Melodia by Osvaldo Lacerda is more discursive but still flows smoothly. Lacerda contrasts its lyrical melody with dexterous passagework giving the illusion of harmony described earlier. The inclusion of Gershwin’s Summertime from Porgy and Bess is not a simple arrangement of the aria but an opportunity for clarinetist Luca Luciano to insert improvisations ranging from the bluesy to the virtuosic. Judging this will be a matter of taste for listeners – I found Luciano’s style to sound strangely clipped in the well-known melody and his improvisations overblown for the context but others may enjoy his choices. Luciano’s artist biography, not included in the album documentation, describes him as an exponent of jazz clarinet as well as contemporary repertoire.

Abîme des Oiseaux is a fragment from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The clarinetist must execute virtuosic flourishes and chirps alongside music of absolute stasis and slow-growing force. Dynamics build from near-silence to reed-shattering volumes on long single notes while the “birdlike” passages are both inspired by nature and otherworldly. Long as Abîme des Oiseaux is, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza IXa is twice its length at over thirteen minutes. As its name implies, it is a sequence of musical events, largely gestural, over extremes of range and volume. Berio includes passages requiring the extended technique of multiphonics, the bringing out of natural overtones via alternate fingerings to produce the effect of multiple notes at once. In the right hands, it can sound haunting, as opposed to merely honking. The Lied is a shorter example of the same style, minus the multiphonics.

Ironically, the Cage Sonata sounds less unusual than the Messiaen or Berio. An early work from the master of musical randomization, it is characterized not by chance but by serialism, the quasi-mathematical organization of pitches in lieu of traditional tonal harmony. This is not audible to the listener so much as is an enjoyment of “noodling” in the first movement and long lines in a spare, austere style in the second. The pitches of the first movement in retrograde, that is, ordered backwards, form the third movement but the effect is quite bluesy. In the closing measures, there is more than a hint of the clarinet solo that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Santoro’s Fantasia sul América likewise ends with a rising glissando and manages to sound soulful while making use of the gestural language of Berio. Continuing the jazz theme, Miranda’s Ludica I has the rhythmic energy and melodic groove of bop contrasted with a more static middle section. Finally, there is the Stravinsky Three Pieces, written in 1918 for an amateur clarinetist and patron of the composer. These are also jazz-influenced, most audibly in the third piece, though the inspiration is more ragtime than later, smoother styles of jazz.

It is good to see unfamiliar composers in this collection. Lacerda and Santoro hailed from Brazil and created large bodies of works across many genres. Ronaldo Miranda, also Brazilian, is a longtime professor of music in Rio de Janeiro. Even John Cage is a rarity in this repertoire, not often represented by his Sonata for Clarinet.

In spite of this, I cannot recommend this album wholeheartedly. Clarinetist Luca Luciano has technique to spare in this repertoire but his ideal clarinet sound and mine do not align. As mentioned above, his tone is often clipped and harsher than it need be in consequence. This is particularly evident in the Stravinsky Three Pieces, Arnold Fantasy, and Gershwin encore. His interpretations also are at times brusque to the point of aggressive. In the second and third of the Three Pieces, Luciano fairly attacks the music while other clarinetists from Sabine Meyer to Jonathan Cohler maintain a rounder sound and characterize the music more playfully. The same criticism applies to the Arnold Fantasy, which further suffers from a stiffness of rhythm. The more unusual items fare better but still Luciano does not often let the music breathe. Martin Fröst, a clarinetist not known for his bashfulness, allows his performance of the Messiaen on Sony to linger over a minute longer, by contrast. Luciano often seems to saddle himself with a literalness of interpretation that goes beyond fidelity to the printed score. A relatively dry acoustic only increases the sense of sonic aggression and interpretive single-mindedness.

You will know whether you want this release or not. Buy it for the expanded repertoire, not for the performance alone.

Note: there is a typo in the album documentation giving the title of the Santoro piece as Fantasia sul Americana and not the correct Fantasia sul América.

Christopher Little
Previous review: David McDade

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