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Ebony And Ivory - Works For Clarinet And Piano / Andrew Simon, Warren Lee

Nichifor / Simon / Lee
Release Date: 12/10/2013 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573022   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Serban NichiforJoseph HorovitzWitold LutoslawskiArnold Cooke,   ... 
Performer:  Andrew SimonWarren Lee
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 9 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Sometimes upon receiving a disc in the mail for review, it’s hard not to wonder, “Why me?” Here is a program of works by mostly 20th-century Modernists whose music I’d never be inclined to seek out on my own, and which I’d be predisposed to dislike before even hearing it. But you know, of course, what comes next—the cliché about books and their covers.

The collection at hand contains six pieces for clarinet and piano, and a seventh—Nichifor’s Two Dances for Andrew Simon —for clarinet solo. Two of the composers were previously unknown to me—Joseph Horovitz and Serban Nichifor. The other three—Malcolm Arnold, Witold Lutoslawski, and Read more Arnold Cooke—are more familiar to me by name than by their actual music, though I’ve definitely sampled it in small doses.

Serban Nichifor (b. 1954) is a Romanian composer, cellist, and professor at the National University of Music in Bucharest. His catalog of works is fairly large and includes several symphonies, two or three operas, a Piano Concerto, a Requiem, and a considerable volume of chamber, choral, and vocal music. Many of his works are dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, and his musical style is one of an eclectic neo-Romanticism which includes elements of jazz as well as Byzantine chant.

The Two Dances for Andrew Simon are entirely unrelated pieces, composed 19 years apart. “Carnyx” came first in 1988 as a stand-alone piece, and was the prize-winning work presented at a convention of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1988. Andrew Simon was in the audience, admired the piece, and played it at his Carnegie Hall debut that same year. Clarinetist and composer became friends, and at Simon’s behest, Nichifor composed a companion piece in 2003, titled “A Musical Joke,” placed it first in order of the two numbers, and gave the work its new collective title, Two Dances for Andrew Simon.

Album note author Warren Lee hears “A Musical Joke” as music that intertwines American jazz with Romanian folk elements. If I hadn’t read that—and hearing the piece for the first time—I’d have said it sounds like a hyped-up happy klezmer having the time of his life in a Persian bazaar. There’s definitely a Middle Eastern flavor to the thing, with a whiff of camel and hookah smoke in the air.

“Carnyx” is a real virtuoso showpiece, beginning with a glissando up to a high held note on the clarinet that makes the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue sound like child’s play. You’ll want to play this track over and over again just to marvel at Andrew Simon’s technical wizardry. I can understand why this piece won the International Society for Contemporary Music award, and why Simon chose it for his Carnegie Hall debut. It’s a real showstopper. If the rest of Serban Nichifor’s is anything like this, I look forward to hearing lots more of it.

Not only will you find Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926) in the Fanfare Archive, but Andrew Simon previously recorded the composer’s Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano with Jon Klibonoff on a Musicians Showcase CD, reviewed by John Story in 23:6. Moreover, on that same CD Simon also recorded Nichifor’s “Carnyx.” At the time of that recording (1988), however, Nichifor’s “A Musical Joke” hadn’t been written yet.

Horovitz’s Sonatina (1981) has firmly established itself among clarinetists as a standard repertoire piece, and it’s easy to hear why. It has immediate ear appeal, setting out on a brisk aerobic nature-walk along a sun-drenched trail. The Jewish Horovitz, who was born in Vienna, fled at the age of 12 with his family to England in 1938; and there he remained, eventually to study composition with Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London, and then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. The Sonatina’s style reflects that background. It’s not exactly a specimen of the British Light Music genre, which, in any case, flourished a bit earlier in the works of composers such as Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, and Armstrong Gibbs, but the antecedents of Horovitz’s music are definitely traceable to the early 20th-century English pastoralists and to some of the frothier French works by Ibert, Poulenc, and Milhaud. The Sonatina’s jazzy Finale will tickle your ears pink.

Horovitz composed the Two Majorcan Pieces in 1956, weaving into them Spanish folk tunes he’d heard three years earlier in the towns of Paguera and Valdemosa, while on his honeymoon. Both pieces are of a strutting, peacockish character, pridefully parading their colorful fan of feathers.

Horovitz’s latest composed piece on the disc is Diversions on a Familiar Theme , written in 1997 to roll out the red carpet for Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Royal College of Music. The “familiar” tune on which Horovitz’s bases his variations is “The Merry Peasant,” op. 68/10, from Schumann’s Album for the Young.

If one had to choose an innocuous-sounding work by Witold Lutoslawski, his Dance Preludes of 1954 seems like a pretty good candidate. The composer himself described the piece as his “farewell to folklore.” Subsequently, he turned away from writing music inspired by Polish folksong and dance and made company with the European avant-garde. The five brief, character-like sketches that make up the Dance Preludes are heard here in their original clarinet and piano version. Lutoslawski would later rearrange them twice—once in 1955 for clarinet, string orchestra, harp, piano, and percussion; and again in 1959 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and string quartet. Musically mild-mannered, the pieces range in temperament from chipper and chirpy (Nos. 1, 3, and 5) to doleful and dreary (Nos. 2 and 4).

West Yorkshire born Arnold Cooke (1906–2005) studied piano and composition under Hindemith at the Berlin Music Academy. Returning to England, he was appointed director of the Festival Theatre at Cambridge, and then, in 1933, professor at the Royal Manchester College of Music. From 1937 on, he made his home in London. No disparagement of Cooke is intended in saying that, for its time, his music is of a conservative bent that reflects Hindemith’s influence, but in a somewhat watered-down, one might say, soft-core way. Cooke’s Clarinet Sonata heard here is freely tonal, but rather more melodically lyrical and less dissonant than Hindemith’s music tends to be.

The Cooke, Horovitz, and Arnold sonatas seem to be sibling companions, cropping up together more than once on disc. As recently as 37:1, Richard Kaplan reviewed a Chandos CD containing all three works, performed by Michael Collins and Michael McHale. And a year before that, in 36:1, Kaplan reviewed another recording on DUX, which included the Horovitz and Arnold pieces, performed by Dawid Jarzynski and Anna Czaicka.

I haven’t heard either of those CDs, but it’s hard for me to imagine these works played with any more liquid tone, fluent technique, amazing breath control, and expressive phrasing than that which is brought to them by Andrew Simon. This, to be honest, is my first encounter with this outstanding American clarinetist, and frankly, I don’t understand why he hasn’t by now been recorded in much of the instrument’s mainstream repertoire, for, in my opinion, he is one of the finest players I’ve heard, and would easily be competitive with the best of the best.

This Naxos disc is obviously a clarinet lover’s feast, but it wouldn’t be right to conclude without acknowledging the excellent work of pianist Warren Lee. The piano parts to these works are certainly not mere accompaniments; these are duo works in the full sense of the term, and Lee proves himself Simon’s equal partner in every way. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Dances (2) for Andrew Simon by Serban Nichifor
Performer:  Andrew Simon (Clarinet), Warren Lee (Piano)
Written: 2003 
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano by Joseph Horovitz
Performer:  Warren Lee (Piano), Andrew Simon (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1981; England 
Majorcan Pieces (2) by Joseph Horovitz
Performer:  Andrew Simon (Clarinet), Warren Lee (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Diversions on a Familiar Theme by Joseph Horovitz
Performer:  Warren Lee (Piano), Andrew Simon (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Dance Preludes (5) for Clarinet and Piano by Witold Lutoslawski
Performer:  Warren Lee (Piano), Andrew Simon (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; Poland 
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Arnold Cooke
Performer:  Warren Lee (Piano), Andrew Simon (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 29 by Malcolm Arnold
Performer:  Warren Lee (Piano), Andrew Simon (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; England 

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