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A Musical Celebration: New Works For Clarinet, Viola & Piano / Trio Con Brio

Sokolovski / Ewazen / Whitman / Galaganov / Owings
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1384  
Composer:  Elena SokolovskiEric Ewazen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Con Brio
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SOKOLOVSKI Venice Suite. EWAZEN Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano Gary Whitman (cl); Misha Galaganov (va); John Owings (pn) ALBANY 1384 (56:00)

Eric Ewazen currently has 33 reviews in the Fanfare Archive, and Elena Sokolovski has, up until now, zero. So, have a guess at which composer I’ll be providing a modicum of biographical information about? Sokolovski is Russian-born, and like many Read more Russian-Jewish musicians, found her way to Israel, where she has resided since 1995. This change of venue took place shortly after her graduation with honors from the Moscow State Conservatory. Since then, she won the Israeli Composers’ and Authors’ Society award for “Best new musical creation for the year 2005,” for her Requiem Izkor, and has had her music featured in a number of international festivals, including the “Russian Harp” festival in Moscow. Much more in the way of further information about her is difficult to come by, either in the program notes of the present CD, or on the Internet, where I spent a rather fruitless half hour browsing.

Sokolovski’s approach to composition is distinctly her own, as she is fond of unusual combinations of instruments, and unusual ways of playing them. A good case in point is her Venice Suite, which she describes as a “Concerto Grosso for Three Soloists and Nine Instruments.” Indeed, there are only the three players in the Trio Con Brio ensemble, comprised of the performers listed in the headnote, but in this work, they are asked to play on nine different instruments, including some that I am certain were not part of their university training (how many viola students receive instruction on the vibraphone, for instance?). The instrumentalists even are required to play partially filled wine glasses, and at the end of the work, the score instructs them to drink the contents thereof. This leads me to wonder how many encores of the work they might want to give, and how those subsequent performances might differ in quality.

But I digress. The Venice Suite begins with a bowed vibraphone, a sonority that sounds almost as if it were electronically produced. Over this pedal, the clarinet sings a mournful phrase, but the spritely harpsichord quickly takes over, and violin and clarinet join in the fun. Other colors are achieved during the course of the work by use of celesta, three clarinets of various sizes and the aforementioned wine glasses. These are struck, and produce sounds similar to small bells. Most of the harmonic language of the work, intended as a kaleidoscopic portrait of Venice, is quite tonally centered, but there are snippets of sonorities that verge into almost (but never true) atonal territory.

This has to be one of the more interesting works I’ve heard in recent months. Now, the epithet, “interesting,” can have pejorative connotations, but in this case, I mean it in only the best sense. Venice Suite really does sustain interest at a high level from beginning to end: One simply does not know what is going to come next. The half-hour-plus work is cast in 11 movements gathered into three parts. The movements are given picturesque titles, such as “Venetians and Lace of Venice,” or “Don’t sink!” Whether there is any significance in the fact that the latter movement is by far the longest in the work, I shall leave for the reader’s rumination. Certainly, though, this is the most playful movement of the entire work, and has many humorous touches, including “sinking” sounds produced through glissandos. Whether this is a great work, I’ll leave for others to judge, but it is unquestionably a good one, and a lot of fun, and well worth hearing.

The Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano by Eric Ewazen makes a good discmate for the Sokolovski work, and was written on commission by the Texas Christian University School of Music for their faculty trio, Trio Con Brio, the featured group on this CD. Ewazen drew his inspiration for the present work from the best-known trio for this combination of instruments, Mozart’s so-called “Kegelstatt” Trio, K 498. Given the similar range of the clarinet and viola, and the fact that both are particularly resonant instruments, Ewazen gave them many passages where they play in duet with each other.

The opening of the work, with its quick arpeggiation in the piano over which the clarinet plays an elegiac and noble melody reminds me somehow of the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (the key of the opening of Ewazen’s trio, too). This is not Rachmaninoff, of course, although the harmonic language doesn’t really go much beyond that of the Russian master. Ewazen handles his harmonic movement most adroitly and imaginatively in this work. Everything moves and flows most persuasively, and the effect is very simply gorgeous. Those who like the romantic sonorities of Rebecca Clarke, Pancho Vladigerov, and well, Rachmaninoff himself, will find much to savor here. Ewazen has captured some of the playfulness of his Mozartean model through use of syncopation, but in the end, lyricism reigns supreme herein, the sweetly serene middle movement forming a nice contrast with the more vigorous outer movements. Again, I won’t declare this to be great music, but it has at least a shot at being so considered. It is, at the least, very fine.

Performances of these two works are definitive, as far as I’m concerned. Ensemble, elegant tone production, and musicianship are all at the highest level. Sonics enhance and never detract from the music and the performance, and this is consequently a splendid CD all around. Very highly recommended.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Venice Suite, Concerto Grosso for 3 Soloists and 9 Instruments by Elena Sokolovski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Con Brio
Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano by Eric Ewazen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Con Brio

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