in: Reviews

May 15, 2013

Clarinet and Piano at the Frederick’s

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In their second appearance at the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series, clarinetist Chester Brezniak and pianist Malcolm Halliday offered 19th and 20th century works for duet and solo Sunday afternoon, opening with one of the most famous works for the combination: Debussy’s Première rhapsodie pour clarinette et piano, composed in 1909-10 (In spite of good intentions/plans, the deuxième was never written.).

This was appropriate, because the piano they chose was an 1877 Blüthner, the same make, but an earlier model, as the composer’s own instrument, a 1904 model which is still extant in a museum in the Limoges area [here]. Like Debussy’s, it had the patented Aliquot system of sympathetic strings above the upper registers, but that feature has been removed. The Blüthner firm was founded in 1853 in Leipzig, where it is still located today. In the same year Steinway was founded in New York and the Bechstein in Berlin. All three made instruments with cast iron frames and cross-, or over-strung bass strings from the outset, although in this instrument it is those of the tenor range that are over-strung, an unusual feature.

Blüthners have a deeper, mellower tone than Steinways, with a resonance that suited Debussy’s impressionistic piece very well, straightforward title notwithstanding. The work lives up to its rhapsodic name through its very free form. The balance of the instruments was very even and pleasing. A solo piano work followed, the Nocturno in D-flat composed in 1917 by Portuguese pianist-composer António Fragoso, who succumbed to the post-WW I influenza epidemic in 1918 at age 21. It is very much in the tradition of Chopin, updated somewhat to a late-Romantic style without being syrupy or flamboyant. This was followed by 4 Stücke für Klarinette & Klavier, Op. 5 composed in 1913 by Viennese Alban Berg. They are very brief pieces, quite different from each other, and very modern, employing techniques and producing sounds that were certainly revolutionary at the time, though they no longer shock as they must have then. The first half closed with Darius Milhaud’s 1927 Sonatine pour clarinette et piano, Op. 100, a melodic, rhythmic, and harmonious 3-movement piece typical of the works of this extremely prolific composer who hailed from Aix-en-Provence.

Halliday opened the second half with Catalan Enrique Granados’ Capricho Español, Op. 37, composed ca. 1890, which the instrument’s sonorities suited well, and Halliday handled the rhythm authentically. British composer Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for B-flat Clarinet, op. 87, written in 1966, followed this. It is decidedly less modern and less adventurous than the 50-year-older Berg in spite of its equally challenging and varied use of techniques and sounds. One of the most famous of all clarinet sonatas, Johannes Brahms in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2 (1894) capped the program. The Op. 120 also closed the program of the duo’s first appearance here on September 16, 2007, when they chose the Collection’s 1871 Streicher, the same model as Brahms’ own studio piano.

The duo offered a variety of music from different periods, styles, and national traditions, all appropriately differentiated and competently rendered, with carefully nuanced dynamics and relaxed tempi. Eschewing spectacle, Brezniak and Halliday gave us a very pleasant, rewarding, and satisfying afternoon.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.

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