This marvellous disc of the twentieth century’s composer’s composer is a “must-have” for clarinet aficionados, chamber music devotees and anyone else who values excellence and commitment in their art.
The “glue” in these wide-ranging performances is John Yeh’s clarinets (“Oehler” system in the Sonata—more novelty than enhancement; Boehm—including the baby E-flat in the Quintet’s deliciously frantic Ländler—in the remainder). Nonetheless, it’s the considerable genius of the creator that makes these musical and emotional experiences so consistently rewarding.
Of the five works presented, it’s the opener that is the least satisfying. Yeh’s tone tends to be a touch on the “wow” side, his stacatti a tad chubby but these small deficiencies pale in comparison to his rhythmic accuracy, easy legato and astonishing changes-of-register that are de rigueur for so many of Hindemith’s melodic lines. Easley Blackwood is his able accompanist (more partner in the writing), sympathetic—to be sure— although the slightly distant presence—notably in the magically brief second movement—only exacerbates the slight muddiness in the 16ths.
The darkly coloured slow movement—passionate from the first measure—never quite manages to find its way to a real sense of inevitability that lurks underneath the surface. The wonderfully child-like lilt of the finale’s theme is rendered with verve and spirit and, having easily disposed of the tension of its ostinato-rich mid-section, makes a welcome return before the duo whisks-away mischievously into the night.
In the Quintet, Yeh demonstrates his ability to control and exquisitely shape the many long lines (the ending of the slow movement is divine) or—equally successfully—serve as the fifth string when providing a more supportive role. The Quartet has an equally committed approach, laying down beautiful beds of pizzicato or flying through the jazzy passagework with panache—particularly in the thick and furious finale.
In the seldom-performed Duets for Clarinet and Violin, Anthea Kreston’s sweet, focussed tone is the perfect match for Yeh’s easy legato. The hint of Peter and the Wolf (whether intentional or not) in the first only underscores the composer’s intent to be accessible to students and professionals alike. In the second, after Yeh deftly hands off the line to his string colleague, the pair stroll amiably through the music to its thoughtful conclusion.
The Nachtmusik—like introspective opening of the Variations—is rendered in a deeply personal manner, as if overhearing a private conversation. The four variants—at times flowing—angular or heroic, finally force the clarinet into the open where it must search high and low for resolution, but—finally—settling for a pulsing single pitch before the not-totally-resolved adieu.
The disc-concluding Quartet is one of the finest musical and aural achievements I have heard in some time. Written just ahead of the Sonata, it is not surprising that the opening movements of both share similar melodic germs. Yeh’s interaction with the Amelia Piano Trio is obviously a labour of love.
Jonathan Yates is superb: few pianists of his calibre also have the understanding to temper their tone and attack so that they complement rather than contrast the sound production of their colleagues. After the beautifully stated opening of the middle movement, cellist Jason Duckles emerges with an impassioned solo cry that demolishes bar lines in its wake and inspires his fellows to match the intensity. Throughout it all, Yeh and Kreston continue their savvy, confident collaboration heard in the duets, matching each other’s phrasing and articulation perfectly.
Hindemith’s final movement reveals an exceptionally varied soundscape, splitting the piano away from its bow-and-breath companions both compositionally—where the keyboard works diligently in the background (as the others sort out their contrapuntal excursions)—and (after the clarinet, violin and cello have reached their happy resolution) in an extended solo that asserts both independence and anger at being shunned. The two “teams” sally back and forth before the now raging keyboard is mocked by the sassy clarinet—then everyone jumps into the fray to deliver a finish that has to be heard to be believed.
Kudos to the performers for digging so deep and getting far past mere notes; accolades to Cedille for providing the medium with which to savour the result. JWR