Notes and Editorial Reviews
Clarinet Duets, Book II.
Concerto for 2 Clarinets
Kim Ellis (cl); Richard Stoltzman (cl);
Kirk Trevor, cond;
Slovak Natl SO
NAVONA 5812 (Enhanced CD: 50:32)
This is a fascinating disc in a couple of ways. The first is that American clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, one of the world’s renowned players, has twice recorded Copland’s Concerto, both times for RCA and both times with the London Symphony Orchestra—once in late 1988 or early 1989 with Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting, and again in 1992 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. But on the current recording, clarinetist Kim Ellis is soloist in the Copland, and Stoltzman plays second clarinet to Ellis’s first in McKinley’s Double Clarinet Concerto. So it is instructive to compare Ellis’s Copland to Stoltzman’s with Tilson Thomas, one of three others in my possession: Goodman/Copland, Shifrin/Schwarz, and Drucker/Bernstein. In light of Benny Goodman’s classic recording of the Concerto, Stoltzman was a bit circumspect when it came to taking up the piece. In a documented phone conversation he had with the composer, Stoltzman told Copland that he wanted to take the Concerto in a different direction, giving it a more “jazz-like sensibility.” Copland’s response to Stoltzman was, “Listen young man, we made that recording [Goodman] many years ago. You take the music and make it yours. Play it the way you feel, and if it feels jazzy to you, I’m fine with that.” So Stoltzman “loosened the piece up quite a lot,” and reported that “Copland was perfectly happy with it.” It’s probably fair to say then that Stoltzman’s reading of the Concerto is not in the more classical mold of Goodman. He brings to it more swing, and especially in the difficult cadenza, a freer, more improvisatory feeling. Enter center stage Kim Ellis, principal clarinetist with the Symphony of Southeast Texas since 1990, and currently an instructor in clarinet and saxophone at Lamar University.
The opening movement, marked
Slow and expressively
, is choice Copland at his Americana best. The music evokes the touching tenderness of the land in a way that no other composer captured quite as effectively—William Schuman came close at times. Ellis’s tone is all milk and honey as she suffuses the score with a feeling of poignant solitude. Yet she avoids drawing the movement out to the point of over-sentimental self-indulgence. Her timing of 8:27 is a full minute faster than Stanley Drucker’s live recording with Bernstein. The situation is reversed, however, in the Concerto’s second movement, where Ellis strikes me as a bit more cautious than the others. It’s not so much a matter of tempo—though she is decidedly slower—as it is the jazz-sprung rhythms, syncopations, and off-the-beat quirkiness of Copland’s score that seem somewhat more studied and reigned in than they do in Stoltzman’s and David Shifrin’s readings. Still, overall, Ellis turns in a fine performance of the Concerto with an especially exquisite first movement.
William Thomas McKinley (b. 1938) will be a familiar name to longtime readers, for numerous recordings of his works—mainly on his own MMC label—have been reviewed by others in these pages. Not unlike many composers of his generation, McKinley passed the initiation rites that admitted him to the avant-garde fraternity of post-Webern serialists, electronic and aleatoric experimentalists, and improvised jazz-classical fusionists. By the early 1980s, however, he turned to a more tonally and melodically based style. Still, it would be a mistake to assume that the remnants of serialism and atonality were completely purged from McKinley’s musical vocabulary, or that a jazz-based idiom does not continue to factor heavily in his works.
I found the six Clarinet Duets particularly rough going. On paper—and I’ll get to that shortly—they appear relatively innocuous. But to the ear—at least this one—they can sound like a shriek-fest of dueling dissonance and discord. This is especially the case in the Fourth Duet, a study in rapid-fire quintuples spit out in vituperative volleys by both players. The Concerto for Two Clarinets employs many of the same techniques, but against a colorful orchestral backdrop, the score takes on a more atmospheric quality, one that is distinguished by a spectral, if not particularly melodic, slow movement. Books I and II of the duets were previously recorded by Stoltzman and Michèle Gingras for MMC, but I haven’t heard them; and as far as I can tell, this is the first recording of the Concerto for Two Clarinets. So, not being familiar with either of these McKinley works, and not having alternate versions to compare them to, I’m not able to say much about the performances other than the fact that both players, Ellis and Stoltzman, sound well matched both technically and tonally, and they seem seriously engaged as well as entertained by McKinley’s writing for their instrument.
Now, the second point of interest I come to is the extra features offered by this release. It’s not your run-of-the-mill audio CD, but what is referred to as an “enhanced” disc. I suppose you could say it lives in a gray area somewhere between a CD and a DVD in that the disc can be played as a standard audio CD in your regular CD player, but the extra features can only be accessed by playing the disc in your computer’s CD drive. When played on your computer, the disc is coded is such a way that a graphics presentation program—Adobe’s Acrobat Reader is the default—is invoked, displaying an enlargement of the front cover, along with a number of icons you can click on that will bring up composer and artist bios, as well as viewable scores of the two McKinley works. Simultaneously, your media player
begin playing the audio portion of the disc. “Should,” however, is the operative word; for as I discovered with the assistance of Sean Joncas of Parma Recordings, whether your media player begins automatically or not seems to be dependent on your personal computer settings and the default media player software you’ve selected. In my case, it wasn’t Microsoft’s media player or any of the more standard applications, so I was having difficulty getting the disc to play the music at the same time it was displaying the graphics. Sean was able to help me through this, for which I am grateful. I would venture that 99 percent of readers who purchase this disc will not encounter the same problem, since their default media player settings will probably be the standard ones. In any case, it needs to be clarified that the graphics on this “enhanced” disc are not of the animated variety. In other words, the scores do not move in automatic synchronization with the playing of the music. These are basically still shots. You can follow the scores along with the music much as you would with a printed score; but as with the printed score, you will have to turn the pages—in this case, click the “next” button to advance to the next frame. Also, the typical bios and notes on the music one finds in an enclosed booklet are here offloaded to the disc.
I will pass no value judgment on the usefulness of such technology, other than to say that as a music-lover and listener I am not inclined to listen to CDs sitting in front of my computer. Fortunately, this disc will play as a standard audio CD on your regular audio system, and as such, it’s a very good one.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Clarinet by Aaron Copland
Kim Ellis (Clarinet)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1947-1948; USA
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