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Webern: Quartet Op. 22; Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Krystall/Serkin: Improvisations

Webern / Brahms / Cooker Quartet
Release Date: 04/12/2011 
Label:  Vivace Records   Catalog #: 8802  
Composer:  Anton WebernMarty KrystallJohannes Brahms
Performer:  Marty KrystallIda KavafianPeter SerkinRichard Stoltzman,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cooker String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet 1. WEBERN Quartet , op. 22 2. KRYSTALL 3 Improvisations 3 1,2,3 Marty Krystall (cl, t sax); 1 Cooker Qrt; 2 Richard Stoltzman (cl); 2 Ida Read more Kavafian (vn); 2,3 Peter Serkin (pn) VIVACE 8802 (58:28)

This release unleashed a flood of memories. On it Webern’s Quartet, op. 22, is vividly brought to life by saxophonist Marty Krystall, pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ida Kavavfian, and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman—those last three being three of the four founding members of an ensemble they, along with cellist Fred Sherry, dubbed Tashi back in 1973. The Tibetan word tashi , to the best of my knowledge, means something akin to “auspicious,” and Tashi, over the years, has proved to be profoundly faithful to its name. Having come of age in the wilds of New Jersey where opportunities for hearing contemporary music at all, let alone hearing it competently performed, were remote, I turned to the LP and its often informative liner notes for the greater part of my musical education in general, and for my exposure to contemporary music in particular. The first recording by Tashi that I acquired was its epochal 1975 RCA release of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time . It is still, decades later and in the wake of more than a few additional recordings of the work, my touchstone. Incidentally, shortly after that initial epiphany, I came into possession of another RCA release (currently deleted and alluded to in William Nichols’s notes to this offering), titled Tashi Plays Webern and Takemitsu . It contained a fine studio recording of the Webern Quartet, op. 22. As in the case of the Messiaen, it was my first hearing of the work along with my introduction to the music of Takemitsu, and, as with the Messiaen, I was irrevocably hooked. This recording presents a live performance of the Webern from a 1974 Cal Arts concert.

The Three Improvisations, played by Krystall and Serkin, use Krystall’s tune Igor’s Blues , inspired both by Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet and by the hunchbacked character Igor from the first Frankenstein film. In the first improvisation, Serkin seems non extant. This is not quite the case. He had Krystall place the bell of his saxophone near the strings of the piano, and manipulated the pedals in order to shade Krystall’s sound by increasing or decreasing its overtones. In the second and third improvisations Serkin finally joins in (his hesitations overcome), and proves to be an able partner. As in the case of the Webern op. 22, this is a live Cal Arts concert recorded a year later, in 1975.

As wonderful as all the participants in this recording are, its star is woodwind virtuoso Marty Krystall. Like so many musicians of his generation he spans a host of musical genres and isms. For years the principal saxophone and E?-clarinet of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and guest saxophonist with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he can also count session work with Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Ringo Starr, Randy Newman, and Bonnie Raitt, among others.

I thought the inclusion of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, particularly apt. I have always contended that Brahms was, technically and affectively speaking, one of the most progressive composers of his age. The leap from his music to that of the Second Viennese School is, indeed, a minor one if one analyzes the rigors of his musical construction and his harmonic language. I personally regard op. 115 as near the top of the short list of his most transcendent creations. Full of autumnal longing, resignation, and memories of life’s passions, disappointments, and pleasures, it sums up a universal experience replete with its travails, delights, a few fleeting triumphs, and the haunting memories thereof. That the quintet ends in a theme and variations movement is significant. A closed-form sonata allegro movement with its heroic implications and triumphant close would be inappropriate. Here Brahms, in his recap of the opening theme of the first movement at the finale’s very end, allows the piece to dissolve away into the ether, leaving the listener in a moment of utter darkness. Can this be remorse of some sort on his part? We’ll never know.

Given a work of this magnitude, no ensemble can possibly get it all. Still, years later, I count among my many favorites an ancient DG recording with Karl Leister and the Amadeus Quartet. It conveys a European kind of smoothness and elegance, and produces a reading that strikingly shows the many aspects of Brahms’s multifaceted musical poetry. This performance by Marty Krystall on the clarinet and the Cooker Quartet conveys much the same. In both cases, despite minor differences too slight to waste the ink upon, the players at first flirt with the listener, then cajole him, and, finally, seduce him into living in the musical moment. That is the highest praise I can convey.

This performance was recorded in 2000 at Capitol Records. In terms of sound, it is marginally smoother than the other stuff on this release. Given the sonic splendors of our latest technology, it will seem a bit overly bright and shallow, but it is never distorted, and fully conveys the timbres of the instruments along with the poetry of the music and the insights and commitment of its performers.

FANFARE: William Zagorski
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano and Violin, Op. 22 by Anton Webern
Performer:  Marty Krystall (Tenor Saxophone), Ida Kavafian (Violin), Peter Serkin (Piano),
Richard Stoltzman (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928-1930; Mödling, Austria 
Improvisations (3) for Tenor Saxophone and Piano by Marty Krystall
Performer:  Peter Serkin (Piano), Marty Krystall (Tenor Saxophone)
Notes: These works were created in collaboration with Peter Serkin. 
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Shawn Mann (Viola), Amy Hershberger (Violin), Marty Krystall (Clarinet),
Christine Frank (Violin), Matt Cooker (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cooker String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891; Austria 

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