Saturday, August 11, 2018

Engaging Music for Clarinet Trio from Aparté

courtesy of PIAS

Aparté is a relatively recent recording label, launched in 2008 in France in conjunction with the Little Tribeca music publishing house. Their releases tend to depart from the beaten path, even when familiar names, particularly those of composers, are involved. In terms of genre, they seem to have intentionally cast a wide net that reaches back at least as far as the seventeenth century.

This Friday they will release a new album that concentrates on music composed during the second half of the twentieth century, Two of the composers are likely to be familiar to most readers, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. The third, Jaan Rääts, was born in 1932, three years earlier than his fellow Estonian, Pärt (born in 1935). Each composer is represented by a single composition; and all of them are played by the trio of clarinetist Patrick Messina, cellist Henri Demarquette, and pianist Fabrizio Chiovetta. As is (almost?) always the case, this album is currently available for pre-order from Stylistically, each of these pieces seems to have developed its own characteristic knapsack of theoretical and rhetorical tools for negotiating the minefield of different trends one could encounter between 1950 and 2000. Nevertheless, each of the three pieces seems to be sustained by a singularly assertive capacity for wit, even if it becomes quickly apparent that each of the three composers had a different sense of humor.

The title of the album is Kaleidoscopic; and it is named after a collection of études for clarinet, cello, and piano that Rääts published as his Opus 97 in 1996. This is the first track on the album and the first time it has been recorded. One quickly encounters the composer’s sense of humor when one realizes that the piece itself is a single uninterrupted movement lasting a little less than fourteen minutes.

This does not belie the use of the plural. Rather, “Kaleidoskopische” is a single fabric into which a prodigious number of technical challenges for each of the instruments have been woven. In other words all of the études unfold within a shared context; but, by virtue of the demanding challenges that they pose, as they unfold they are wont to bump into each other. The result is almost maddeningly cheerful, possibly a bit reminiscent of some of the raucous virtuoso work that Paul Schoenfeld composed as reflections on his life as a cocktail pianist.

Rääts’ Opus 97 is followed by the Pärt selection. “Mozart-Adagio” was originally composed for piano trio in 1992; but in 2017 he prepared a version in which the clarinet takes over the violin part. This is another “debut recording,” since it is the first time that the 2017 version has been recorded and released.

“Mozart-Adagio” was composed in memory of the violinist Oleg Kagan, who died of cancer and the early age of 43. The booklet note by Jed Distler calls the composition “essentially an arrangement of the central Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 280;” but I think Lalo Schifrin’s turn of phrase “dissection and reconstruction” would be more appropriate. Furthermore, the approach to “reconstruction” involves smoothing off some of Mozart’s dissonances while throwing in many that he would have never considered. “Mozart-Adagio” is thus a piece that mischievously sets up any number of expectations (at least among those who know their Mozart) and then, just as mischievously, smashes them to bits. What is particularly engaging on this recording is the deadpan delivery provided by all three of the members of the trio, contrasting sharply with the more overt prankishness that one encounters in compositions in which Alfred Schnittke sets out to destroy sacred icons.

The real surprise of the album, however, is the final selection, Górecki’s three-movement Opus 53, “Lerchenmusic” (music of larks). At a time when composers like Rääts and Pärt were beginning to cultivate their own unique voices, Górecki composed his third symphony (Opus 36), giving it the subtitle “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” When it first appeared, it was dismissed as simplistic; but, when it was recorded over a decade later by the London Sinfonietta led by David Zinman performing with soprano soloist Dawn Upshaw, it was embraced as a “new minimalism” that went down the ears far more smoothly than most of the compositions by Philip Glass or Steve Reich.

Fortunately, in his own efforts to find a voice for his compositions, Górecki’s third symphony came and went. Anyone expecting to hear “more sorrowful songs” in Opus 53 will be profoundly disappointed. The piece’s German title has a French subtitle, “Récitatifs et ariosos,” which seems to reflect back on the sorts of formal structures one could encounter in the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his settings of the Passion texts. However, the only recognizable arioso will be found in the middle movement, while the outer movements play fast and loose with both of the structures. As a result, Opus 53 shares with “Mozart-Adagio” a well-timed technique for both establishing and then confounding expectations.

Nevertheless, if these two pieces serve a common goal, their methods are totally different. The two may both indulge in the appropriation of readily recognizable sources (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 piano concerto in G major in Górecki’s Opus 53); but the contexts in which the familiar is embedded are decidedly different. Furthermore, Górecki dwells far more on wide swings in dynamic level, a technique that particularly distinguishes this music from that of the Opus 36 symphony. He also pushes his soft dynamics to far greater extremes, as if he were playing with the listener’s concerns over his/her own capacity to detect the barely audible.

Taken as a whole, Kaleidoscopic as an album that poses a challenging journey of discovery; but those willing to confront those challenges should be able to appreciate that, for the most part, they may be surmounted with a sunny disposition.

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