Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here is a disc that guarantees the listener something out of the ordinary. Although the cover emphasises the inclusion of Messiaen, Stravinsky and Purcell the range is much greater. With effortless ease Aurelian-Octav Popa, solo clarinettist of the ‘George Enescu’ Philharmonic Orchestra in Bucharest, puts the old cheek-by-jowl with the new and the known alongside the unknown.
Popa’s own composition, the longest on the disc, forms the first track. In it he announces the versatility of both his instrument and a formidable playing technique. The playing of a solo line is superimposed on six simultaneously played recordings of other clarinet parts to weave a web of sound that is conservative of name but daring in expression. He
takes the clarinet to its limits in terms of range but succeeds in demonstrating that even in individual parts he is always aware of “the notion of symphony (sounding together)”, as he says in the accompanying notes.
A brief Purcell Prelude follows to throw a stark contrast on Popa’s multi-voiced composition. A variant repeat of the same Prelude appears two tracks later. Taken from a prelude for string orchestra, Popa’s first version presents a rather easy-going yet straight laced view, the second version explores the clarinet’s range to a greater extent in a free and easy manner. Purcell’s brief Hornpipe (track 6) makes a characterful interlude between the diverse sound worlds of Stravinsky and Tiberiu Olah. Couperin and two Bachs complete the selection of “charming early compositions”, as Popa calls them in his brief yet incisive notes. The Couperin is presented with a subtly nuanced yet fluid line, its quasi-cyclical nature proves strangely haunting too. JS Bach’s Partita is given a sonorous performance of sensitivity, long-breathed and full toned. Through careful phrasing and voicing the piece seems entirely natural on the clarinet – no small tribute to Popa’s gifts as a performer. C.P.E. Bach’s Solfegietto contains no small measure of poignancy in its writing. Popa intentionally plays the piece as a brief yet emotional acknowledgment of a great father’s influence by his scarcely less gifted son.
The rest of the disc is given over to modern miniatures for the instrument. Martian Negrea’s Le mois de Mars incorporates subtle colourings from Debussy and Enescu and emphasises the fact that Romanian composers often established and maintained western links in their writing, rather than working in an isolated environment.
Olah’s single movement sonata draws its inspiration from Brâncu?i’s series of sculptures “Maiastra” which encapsulate the spirit of a Romanian folkloric bird that flies at the edge of the known universe, singing out into the abyss. The work attends various elements of the bird – soaring flight to begin with; its lonely and haunting song; the isolation of its existence. In contrast to Brâncu?i’s sculptures which are fames for their sensuality of curve and line, Olah treats the subject with stark angularity of rhythm at times. Popa willingly exploits this in his playing and makes purposeful contrast between the earlier soaring line and later more insistent ones that tell of an endless abyss. An alternative take on the work is given by Karin Dornbusch on a Caprice Records CD (CAP 21551), but she is not recorded so atmospherically and in adopting a faster overall tempo smoothes over much angularity to give a less characterful performance than Popa offers.
Corneliu Cezar’s brief Théâtrale, used as radio signature tune in Romania, is notable for its dotted rhythms and repeated intentionally sparse line across the clarinet’s range. Richness of tone and timbre are evident in Popa’s playing. Mihnea Brumariu’s composition - written for Popa - is more reflective in character initially, before asking the soloist to articulate the boundaries of notes, glissandi and soft rhythms in quick succession. The closing section carries something of a clown’s humour about it, with surface laughs hiding more serious thoughts.
Stravinsky’s Three pieces is a work that Popa admits to having strong emotions for. A sense of repose is caught in the intentional piano playing of the first piece, contrasting with the more exuberant rhythmic intricacies that follow. More than other works on the disc the work allows Popa the freedom to express the most subtle sustained dynamics that the clarinet is capable of. John Cage’s sonata is surprising for the relative conformity of its material. By stating that the dynamics and phrasing for performance are not indicated in the score he gives the player a free hand to push boundaries. Admittedly, Popa plays things a little on the safe side for the recording, but he does succeed in communicating much of the spirit of liberation that is central to Cage’s persona. Hans-Ulrich Lehmann’s Mosaïk, appropriately, is built out of small shards of notes grouped together with the appearance of randomness. The work also betrays a kinship to Webern’s music in that at first it can yield little to the listener, but in course of repeated listening patterns can gradually emerge. Copland’s Cadenza is rather easier in its discretely flowing melody to take on board during a first listening.
Three works by Messiaen complete the recorded repertoire. Popa worked with Messiaen both as a composer and performer from the 1970s onwards and their professional relationship was evidentially a close one. Abîme des Oiseaux is imbued with restraint across its intentionally long lines before chattering to life amidst the subdued atmosphere that the solo line leaves hanging in the air. Subtilité des Corps Glorieux and Hymne des passereaux au lever du jour spring with distinctiveness from the same pen. Uplifting, they hint both individually and together of thoughts beyond the earthly realm. Popa’s playing is fully involved and refined in letting the composer’s beloved birdsong motifs sing out with ease.
Aurelian-Octav Popa’s own brief yet insightful annotations on the works set the seal on this most engaging recital. The recorded sound is natural and atmospheric. But the real joy of it is that the playing order provides but one possibility for listening; programming your CD player to reorder the tracks allows for others to be explored – and I have enjoyed making my own associations in this way several times now and look forward to making new ones in the future. Let your imagination take flight!
-- Evan Dickerson, MusicWeb International
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