Fanfare CD Review by Michael Cameron (January 2, 2012)
Written by Michael Cameron
Published by Fanfare
STUCKY Meditation and Dance. USTVOLSKAYA Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. SALONEN Nachtlieder. BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet • David Howard (cl); Vicki Ray (pn); Johnny Lee, Lyndon Taylor, Kristine Hedwall (vn); John Hayhurst (va); Gloria Lum (vc) • YARLUNG 78874 (65:68)
I’ve reviewed a fair number of recordings with the clarinet as the headline instrument, but I can only remember one or two that are as satisfying in as many respects as this one, and none more so. Los Angeles Philharmonic veteran clarinetist David Howard has hit every conceivable sweet spot; his playing displays multiple interpretive and technical attributes, his colleagues are equally top-drawer, his program is fascinating and varied, and the recorded sound is the finest I have encountered for a solo clarinet.
He begins with Meditation and Dance by Steven Stucky, a composer who has enjoyed a long working relationship with the Philharmonic. It’s a vibrant curtain-raiser, and a good choice to precede Galina Ustvolskaya’s stubborn, uncompromising, and ultimately magnificent trio. Ustvolskaya may be the most underrated composer of the 20th century, ironic considering that her mentor may the most overrated. Since this is the first time I’ve written of her music for Fanfare, I perused the Archive and found some perceptive observations as well as admiration ranging from grudging to enthusiastic. Like all of her music, the Russian recluse does nothing here to hide her intentions or smooth over rough spots. Her counterpoint is blunt and pointed, her textures are always clear if etched with a sledgehammer. You may not like this music, but you are not likely to be indifferent or confused. Howard, violinist Johnny Lee, and pianist Vicky Ray give a precise, bold, yet level-headed reading in a live setting.
Another composer with close ties to the orchestra is Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his early Nachtlieder are a bracing, astringent set of four short pieces that call to mind early Berg minus the most extremes of the later hyper-expressionist fervor. Of special note is Howard’s remarkable control of quiet dynamics, a talent he uses to shape phrases that might otherwise slip past the listener’s attention.
The Brahms Clarinet Quintet might not seem like a suitable match with the earlier works, but Howard seems gratefully keen on avoiding the ghettoization of new music. I’ve heard many splendid versions of the quintet live and in recording, and this one easily stands with the best of them. The Shifrin/Emerson on DG is one of the best for sheer drama and precision, and the Meyers/Berg takes the prize for idiomatic warmth. This is clearly in the same league for its assured and robust performance, and audiophiles will appreciate its tonal accuracy and natural soundstage. The sound is warm and silky without compromising detail. Pick your justification—this is a must-have disc. Michael Cameron
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.