As tellingly summed up in just over two damning minutes in the “Postlude,” the world’s collective failure to protect and nurture all of its young couldn’t be more eloquently stated and illuminated than through the artistry of Donald Betts (composer/pianist) and Richard Stoltzman (clarinet).
Painted Shadows of Children begins with an ominous “Awakening” where Stoltzman’s effective vibrato is the musical brush on the piano’s frequently drone-like canvas. As the movement builds the emotion spills over into the ear and soul; by journey’s end the question remains: whose awakening? The child’s or ours? The “Lullaby” opens with a liquid soliloquy (with a tad too much “slap” from the otherwise nimble clarinetist’s fingers) then morphs into a truly dreamy realm.
A Stravinsky-like March, filled much sauciness, smartness and a sprig of jazz makes up “A Child’s Dance.” Notably, the mood is never fun. “Children’s Chants” are heard in Betts’ highly imaginative aural playground where taunts of “My reed’s better than yours” might be heard. Stoltzman brilliantly sears into the stratosphere just as children squeal to grab everyone’s attention. A devilishly dissonant game is afoot in “At Play ‘til Dusk,” its “calmo” middle section slips away into the night with admirable style and control.
“Towards Darkness and Silence” is a compelling mix of the piano’s “bells” and clusters over which the clarinet soars ahead only to slink back and fall deeper into desperate despair. “Night Music” affords a rare lead to the keyboard before Stoltzman broodingly surveys all registers, crafting an image of being truly alone. Incredibly, following a flash of anger, a snippet that brought the glorious “Adagio” from Brahms’ Violin Concerto to mind briefly provided the composition’s only moment of hope. The daily reality of darkness in millions of young lives could be heard in the anguished cries before all light vanished.
Without lecturing, Betts has managed to make his point with a clarity that, surely, none could fail to understand. Having Stoltzman breathe life into the carefully written lines ensured the magnificent result.
The CD also features a trio of works for strings and a solo piano excursion into the heavens.
Timothy Betts’ darkly-rich, dramatic tone makes the ideal declaimer in Three Musical Aphorisms. From fearless attacks, to rough, biting, purposely forceful lines to the fleshy pizzicati, bends and bows of the finale, the set begs the question with skillful abandon.
Three Brief Conversations pairs Betts with violinist Heather Netz. Despite the dark subject matter, the duo appears to be generally of the same view, musically and stylistically. They eagerly slip in and out of each other’s range and tantalizingly approach literal unity but end up a semi-tone apart (middle movement). Lyricism is the tool of the finale, used to persuade throughout the wide-ranging discussion before a quiet consonance signals agreement at last.
The Kairos String Quartet is called before the microphones to render Snap Shots: Three Views of a Forgotten Place. Yet the “camera” may well have been focussed internally as the music speaks of heart and soul rather than countryside or lack. The powerful intensity towards the closing measures is palpable and personal.
A 1982 recording by the composer of Constellations: A Piano Fantasy concludes the disk. It’s a fine performance—especially the beautifully paced “Pegasus” and masterfully constructed “Crux Australis,” where East meets West, comes across in wondrous fashion. Kudos to MMC Recordings for also including the study scores on the CD. Let’s hope that becomes a regular feature. JWR