Fanfare CD Review by Steven E. Ritter (January 2, 2012)
Written by Steven E. Ritter
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)
This new release by longtime Los Angeles Philharmonic clarinetist David Howard has much to recommend it, featuring an established standard, a glimpse into the Soviet era, and two works by two L.A.-mainstay composers.
The Brahms first, since it is the major work on this disc. We all know the story of Richard Mühlfeld, the clarinet player who almost single-handedly rescued Brahms from a creative stasis that threatened to terminate his composing career around 1890, feeling he was written out, and already beginning to consign much of his music to the flames. The meeting with Mühlfeld changed all of that, and by 1891 Brahms was working on the Clarinet Trio and also a “far greater piece of foolishness,” which turned out to be the crowning piece of chamber music for the clarinet, heard on this disc. Its opening bars almost define the term “autumnal” that is so associated with this composer, though he would no doubt have laughed at the adjective as he hardly considered himself a sentimental man, even though generations of music lovers see him as just that in his music. There is no lack of recordings of this work, and everyone will have favorites. Mine, to this point, and for quite a while, have been Lluna/Tokyo (Harmonia Mundi), Gray/New Hollywood (Centaur), Stoltzman/Tokyo (RCA), and the classic Kell/Fine Arts (Boston Skyline). I’ll be honest—I am not sure how this one stacks up just yet. It is going to take a whole lot more listening over a period of time. What I can say is that Howard does have the right kind of tone for this music, dark, woody, and very resonant. Technically he is beyond reproach. His cohorts are generally fine, though they lack the last degree of ensemble unanimity that one might find in more established quartets, partially made up for by the fusion generated in this live Walt Disney Hall performance.
In the end it might be the shorter pieces that persuade me. Galina Ustvolskaya’s Trio (1949) marks a departure from any stylistic resemblance to her mentor, Shostakovich. The reclusive and mystical woman was curiously devoid of interest in the fate of her music, and seemed to maintain that the spiritual elements present in it were more important than the actual perpetuation of the work. This piece is wonderfully evocative and haunting, guaranteed to toss you back into the Cold War days.
I have yet to hear a piece by former L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen that I didn’t like. This one is interesting in that it is very early (1978) and clearly shows the influence of Alban Berg. Even at this early date Salonen shows a firm grasp of structure, playfulness, and sharpness of line. Steven Stucky, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, chimes in with a work he intended as a sort of student contest piece. One listen to this and you understand why the students need to be at the top of their games, a brilliant showpiece that spotlights the clarinet in all its glory.
OK, after writing this I am convinced: This is a worthy disc. While it can’t be my only Brahms, it does offer a nice take on an old warhorse, and Howard is a marvel in everything here. The other pieces are definitely worth keeping around—why did this disc take so long to hit the market? The sound is generally good, but very close up, not too airy, surprising for a Disney Concert Hall recording. Steven E. Ritter
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.