A new world for the 20th-century clarinet

Alexandre Daudet (clarinet) Catherina Lemoni-O’Doherty (piano) BERNSTEIN, MUCZYNSKI, REICH

June 7th, 2011 - Boydell Recital Room, Trinity College Dublin

In 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns completed the now-popular The Carnival of the Animals, a playful suite for orchestra depicting in sound a noisy menagerie of hens, elephants, tortoises and jackals - amongst others (The flamingos of the animated Disney realisation of the Finale are a later addition of some artistic director or another on Walt Disney’s Fantasia team).

A work like The Carnival can, in its popularity, condemn the timbre of certain respectable instruments to an eternity of servitude to composers of little initiative who hear birds squawk in their minds and ink in a lazy trill on the flutes, or who hear the thuds of plodding elephants and reach for the (already plenty comical) low register of the tuba.

Since 1886, then, has the clarinet - a relative latecomer to the musical family - suffered at the hands of this kind of typecasting? If it has, a programme presented in College on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in June has done its duty in asserting that writing for the twentieth-century clarinet is a rewarding adventure - as it is to play it.

Daudet opened with Leonard Bernstein’s first completed mature work, the two-movement Sonata for Clarinet. Premièred in 1942 shortly after its composition, the piece - though at times reminiscent of an exercise in counterpoint - Bernstein’s immersion in a wholly non-classical musical ideal with Jazz and Mexican influences slowly pervades the work, right up to its flashy conclusion. Rhythmically alive, pulsating with an almost mechanical impetus towards the end, the work demands an intensity of concentration and a fearless grasp of expressivity in dynamic range. Notoriously difficult as it is to sustain a beautiful tone at the quiet end of the clarinet’s dynamic spectrum, Daudet’s control was impressive.

Robert Muczynski doesn’t enjoy quite the same “name-rec” (should such a thing really exist in this insular world) as Bernstein who enjoyed attention from all quarters inside the music scene and out. Yet his Time Pieces (of which four movements) are a convincing essay in metric interest and this performance made a convincing case for the music of the lesser-known. Tension levels are high in this work and as an extended cadenza in the last movement leads to a frenzied race to the finish against the accompanying pianist, the programme reaches its climax in the final crashing close.

Alexandre Daudet prescribed Steve Reich’s hypnotic New York Counterpoint for clarinet and tape as an antidote to the mounted tension. Trance-inducing, this work uses in tandem compositional principles established by Reich previously in works like Music for Eighteen Musicians (forming his conception of ‘pulse’) and Piano Phase (pre-recorded tape of homogenous timbre to the live instrument). Nicely balanced dynamically, Daudet weaved in and out, hocket-like, of an eleven-track recording of the auxiliary parts and gave a warm and assertive performance from within the wall of sound produced by Reich’s layering processes. New York Counterpoint is something of an auditory illusion that plays with the listener’s perception of the beat and offers a multifaceted crystal of timbre that is a pleasure to examine and re-examine from all angles.

This short recital presented all-American palette of solutions to the compositional challenge posed by a relatively new innovation in instrument design. A well-played clarinet is an instrument with the potential for quasi-vocal cantabile lines with the ability to turn on a sixpence and come crashing in with piercing and relentless passage work, a true asset for composers in the century that follows that of the innovations displayed one rainy Tuesday in June.