Those with a taste for brooding, reflection and moodiness will savour nearly every track of this installment from Richard Stoltzman’s multi-disc journey through New American Works for Clarinet. Since 1992, three top-notch composers have taken on the assignment of crafting music for clarinet and orchestra, producing largely legato-rich testaments to the challenges of life where its triumphs are seldom overtly heard but hugely savoured in the intrepid soloist’s skill and passion for his art. Not to be left behind in this compendium of the dark corners of the human experience is Carl St. Clair and his talented charges who fill the ranks of the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra—all captured by Andrezej Sasin’s spectacularly balanced recording.
First up is the newest work: Jonathan Sacks’ seven-section Portals. With Berlioz lurking in the shadows at every tolling bell, the book-end “Chants” provide a multi-layered bed of tortured sound over which Stoltzman offers reedy cries of anguish. The deeply-moving voyage traverses Rimski-Korsakov Scheherazade-like arpeggios (with more key clacking than befits the effect) and a stunning whoosh” of creation as the single-cane ebony tube morphs to feather—the “clar-bird” first soars to the sky, contemplates those below before riding the string ricochets into the stars, with the odd snippet of tune that foreshadows the finale chorale (which is incredibly intense, featuring near-perfect interaction between the clarinet and strings).
Not surprisingly, much of Sacks’ dank tone spills over into Roger Davidson’s Meditation and Dance. The sinewy utterings of the chant from the low strings curiously whet the aural appetite for a choral version. Davidson risks a near-pedantic, steadily-forward approach, but makes it work. The clarinet offers insights and purity on pitches that transcend the gloom; the finely honed bassoon’s “hope of major” teases at every turn; the brief canon in the woods reminds just underused counterpoint has become; the horn and oboe provide yet another dimension even as the low drums knock at the door of the soul. It falls to a low-register flute to emerge from the depths of thought, persuading the strings to drop their bows and offer plucky, light accompaniment as the “Dance” begins. It’s a free and easy relief—Stoltzman unleashed is a constant pleasure (as is his partner-in-time, the trumpet). But the joy can’t last and the heavy thoughts win over the Klezmer-imbued score.
William Thomas McKinley’s 9 Shades of Lament continues the themes of pathos and regret. Stoltzman devours the music ferociously, providing bends with beauty in “Cantilena,” through a throaty haze of despair in “Triste” (and the livin’ ain’t easy) through an emotionally grotesque “Tragico” before asking one last question in “Fugace” that must await another day for a reply. With 6 Movements for Clarinet, the mood abruptly shifts to caustic fun and parody. Marvellous are the shades of Villa-Lobos as the “Interrupted Waltz” runs out of steam; those who love parades and toys will delight in “Toy Soldiers; the cocky and strident “Tin Man” seems to cry “I dare you to oil me”; the slink-through-the-‘hood “Black Blues” is a welcome change, oozing easily into the more snap-than-sizzle “Tango.” Finally, the true light at the end of this tunnel is a single-reed, frenzy-of-froth “Polka” that even manages a moment of joy—cheers to that! JWR