Monday, April 22, 2019

Clarinet Rarities at “The Interludes”

Micah Wright.

Micah Wright and Friends,
“The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The extremely long-lived Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)—organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris for no fewer than 64 years—was one of the most noted composers for the instrument, with 10 symphonies for organ solo, amongst other works, to his name. This concentration of attention is unfortunate as it has obscured his large output in other forms: for orchestra, for various chamber forces, and keyboard, plus many songs and choral pieces, in toto considerably outnumbering those for his signature instrument.

Charles-Marie Widor.
The audience at the April “The Interludes” recital from Classical Crossroads Inc. had a rare opportunity to glimpse one corner of this hidden massif of music, when Micah Wright and Hui Wu opened a substantial and imaginatively planned program with Widor’s Introduction and Rondo for clarinet and piano, Op. 72, dating from 1898.

Though not a great deal more than an appetizing bonne bouche, it showcased the skills of both players in its pretty much equal distribution of musical interest across an eight-minute span that’s notable for disguising its titular division into two parts much more than some other similarly-named pieces, the wistfully-tinged main rondo theme maintaining a preludial air throughout.

Hui Wu.
That wistful tinge also imbues the deceptively relaxed but insidiously memorable opening theme of Prokofiev’s Sonata in D major Op. 94. Originally composed for flute and piano but arguably more well-known in the version for violin that Prokofiev himself made, the sonata was also transcribed for clarinet by the American composer and academic Kent Kennan (who in addition orchestrated his version), and it was this that Micah Wright and Hui Wu played.

Sergei Prokofiev.
The first movement is one of the most impressive cases of Prokofiev’s way of seeming  effortlessly to bend the time-honored sonata framework into the perfect vehicle for his unique blend of harmonic astringency and piquant, unpredictable melody, though both here and in the succeeding Scherzo, despite the tempo being on the easy-going side for its Presto marking, I found the insistence of high-lying clarinet tone a little hard on the ear, and over the whole work less subtle and reflective than the flute original.

Ms. Wu had to leave early, so unusually there were a couple of encores in the middle. First up was Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1 from his set of three for piano, the clarinet transcription carrying a strong whiff of Rhapsody in Blue. Then, for the first but not the last time in the recital, Mr. Wright showed his versatility by joining Ms. Wu at the piano for an easefully unbuttoned account of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 7 in A major WoO 1/7, here in its original form for four hands.

Robert Muczynski.
A brief platform rearrangement ensued, after which Mr. Wright returned again to occupy the piano stool, now as a member of Trio Escalan together with Espen Nystog Aas (clarinet), and Allan Hon (cello). Out of this concert’s roster the composer least-known, at least to me, was the American Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), whose Fantasy Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 26 dates from 1969.

Paradoxically perhaps, this “Fantasy” adheres quite closely to the classic four-movement pattern, but with a total duration of under 15 minutes extremely concisely. Throughout, the work is dark-hued and intense. The Allegro energico first movement, driven by clarinet skirls and jazzy rhythms on the piano, is virtually monothematic apart from a brief, questing, excursion on the ‘cello. 

Espen Nystog Aas.

The second movement, Andante con espressione, maintains the brooding character, opening with a wide-spanning ‘cello theme around which both it and the clarinet continue to circle, and there’s no let-up in the third, a moto perpetuo driven by the piano, over which Mr. Aas’s clarinet leapt like a tethered bird (perhaps it was the nature of the writing, but his instrument seemed less piercingly assertive than Mr. Wright’s had been).

Surprisingly, the nominally fast finale began with a slow introduction so extensive that it’s more sensible to see the movement as being in two approximately equal halves. The latter Allegro section brought to mind Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive chase music from the titles of North by Northwest, bringing down the curtain on a work as impressive as it is economical. I would like to hear more Muczynski.

Allan Hon.
Last came one of the four late Brahms works inspired by the playing of the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. This was the Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano Op. 114, completing a program which, at virtually an hour-and-a-half, included as much music in its continuous, nominally shorter, afternoon form as many a whole evening concert. 

While it’s hard to keep the “autumnal” adjective at bay in writing about these works, in truth the Clarinet Trio is far less overtly reflective and sunset-hued than its companion work, the larger and more often-played Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115.

Instead it maintains an uneasy balance between minor-key tension and lyricism, opting finally for a clouded urgency in the comparatively brief Allegro finale. Perhaps in this performance the Trio Escalan had just a touch of “getting through all the notes” at the end of a long afternoon, but by-and-large they did this enigmatic chamber masterpiece from Brahms’s final years proud. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, April 20, 2019. Photos: Micah Wright: D’Addarío Woodwinds; Prokofiev: Freedom from Religion Foundation; Muczynski: Arizona Daily Star; Espen Nystog Aas: Norwegian Academy of Music; Allan Hon: Vermont Mozart festival; Widor: International Historical Organ Recording Collection; Hui Wu: Yellow Barn.

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