During my clarinet-playing days, I was already a keen advocate for off-the-beaten-track repertoire, thus finding my way into the works of Manevich, Lutoslawski Honegger and Sutermeister.
Unforgettable was a provincial competition (as will be seen, the designation is true on more than one plane) where the adjudicator thought that I’d played Hindemith’s magnificent Concerto for Clarinet well (with accompanist-extraordinaire Evelyn Greenberg excelling through the fiendishly challenging orchestral transcription), but he just didn’t like it. Weber won again!
How absolutely wonderful to come across John Mitchell’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 3. Although composed in 1968 and thinking myself to be fairly knowledgeable on new music, it’s taken 40 years for our paths to cross. Once again, MMC Recordings has demonstrated just how valuable their many CDs are to the music-loving (and performing) public.
Three evenly balanced movements are lovingly crafted and presented by Richard Stoltzman and David Phil. From its first measure, the “Prelude” is engaging—filled with film-score sentimentality (yet never saccharine) that speaks to Mitchell’s roots in Hollywood. Stoltzman’s somewhat strident upper-range is more than made up for by many extended notes of incredible beauty—infused with a aura of purity that is truly astonishing. Phil is an able accompanist who carefully matches the weight of his lines with those emanating from the clarinet.
“Fanfare and Scherzo” lifts off with a few bars of pianistic brass that are immediately commented upon by the soloist, who manages to speak volumes with just a single reed.
The “Scherzo” more than lives up to its playful billing, happily slipping into West-Side-Story riffs and rhythms. Two intervening “Trios” add easy-going relief—the second literally comes out of nowhere before bidding a quiet adieu into the soothing land of niente.
A zesty, forward-leaning parade to the double bar sums up “March and Fugue.” Mitchell’s church organist background is evident in the near-religious preparation for the fugue—so good to have some intricate part-writing post 1950—before bursting into counterpoint and joy (replete with a generously syncopated middle episode). A distant echo of Brahms’ Second Symphony pops into the final frames as the march resumes more energetically than ever.
Flautist Michael G. Finegold next steps into the spotlight for a pair of works. Toward the Dawn seems to call Helios directly; Phil burns away the early-morning mists and provides an opening for the flute to venture up to the heavens where the low-register repeated phrase finally makes its point. The final place of rest comes again, and again and again.
Although employing a vibrato a tad too vigorous for my taste, Finegold renders Pralaya (whose thematic core pays a reverent homage to Ravel’s Bolero) with a welcome ability to let the melody evolve without fuss, yet enough forethought to keep anyone’s attention during this unaccompanied essay.
The Op. 36 Sonata features frequently bold keyboard and bassoon writing that spans the registers without ever approaching the “clown of the orchestra” cliché: Ronald Haroutunian handles the entire range with aplomb; his overall tone has just enough “wood” to deliver the lyrical ideas most compellingly—only the odd fuzzy edge detracts from his legato; a drier clip after quick-moving slurs would improve the ensemble. Hindemith lurks in much of the ostinato accompaniment: the clear tribute to the American West (although not so wild) makes this trail well worth travelling.
Similarly—in the final composition—Francis Poulenc (another important contributor to the wind-sonata repertoire) is frequently near the surface of Phil’s sensitive support of hornist John Aubrey.
The highlight of Op. 108 is its second movement—here’s horn noire writing that could find its way to the big screen to depict any reputable gumshoe.
To re-write a designation from George Bernard Shaw for one of the groupings of his plays, this Mitchell CD is a collection of Winds Most Pleasant. JWR