With well over 100 CDs awaiting a hearing (and that number, of course, ebbs and flows monthly), it is only now during the pandemic of the century that I am able to make first acquaintance with American composer, Stephen Hartke. Sharing the first name (although I go by my second—insurance salespersons be warned!), and the same year of birth, it seemed high time to tear off the cellophane of this NAXOS CD and get at it.
The centrepiece is Clarinet Concerto “Landscapes with Blues”, featuring clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (a frequent friend of these pages: cross-reference below) alongside conductor Michael Stern and the pride of Tennessee’s Iris Chamber Orchestra.
It’s a soundscape/landscape of the Mississippi Delta Blues and readily lives up to its premise of a musical travelogue.
In the opening “Senegambia”, after some very bright strings demanding attention, Stoltzman swings in from the get-go firing through his lines, at times exuding a train horn, some hints of Gershwin and wonderful sense of scrappiness (aided and abetted by his bass clarinet larger family member). Hartke employs full use of range, “cantus firmus” bass, calmer “middle” and some welcome percussive “rattles” to add texture. The delicately “tongued” adieu is just right.
Sans doute, “Delta Nights” (nearly 16 minutes) is the figurative and literal heart of the work. It has a definite feel with the Nachtmusik of Béla Bartók. After the thoughtful introduction, Stoltzman readily takes stage, inserting just enough legato, slides and bends to warm the various lines. Conductor Michael Stern proves to be a discreet accompanist even as the drama builds into a vrai soundscape of the landscape. Hartke never shies away from employing the full “kitchen” to add colour. As the music gets busier and busier, even the unwelcome sound (but undeniable reality over past generations) of the snapping whip evokes thoughts and ideas. Happily, the mood soon calms with an extended wail from the clarinet—supported by horns—helps ease the pain. The lingering adieu will remain long in quiet memory.
“Philamayork” will send all listeners home with a sense of hope—so welcome now in your year of pandemic discontent.
Composed for string octet in 1998, The Rose of the Winds is an emotional landscape few can’t respond to. It’s a mesmerizing arch, plumbing the depths of darkness, soul searching, fleeting joy then acceptance. The players are more than up to the task.
More colour than substance, Gradüs just never caught my imagination. Decide for yourself!
Sad to say, the last offering (Pacific Rim) is the least satisfying of the lot. After a somewhat pedantic opening (prelude), its following fugue is both untidy and forgettable. Pity. JWR