This afternoon, the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall welcomed Narek Arutyunian, clarinet, in recital with Solon Gordon, piano. Arutyunian is a gold medalist in the 2010 Young Concert Artists International auditions, and a formidable talent. His collaborator, Solon Gordon, piano, is a fabulous musician who will, we hope, return to Boston frequently in the future.
The recital began with Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. The opening Grazioso was lilting and soulful. The Andantino commenced on a slowly moving line, beautifully sustained, then shifted suddenly to the Vivace e leggiero – a syncopated, jazzy dance with traces of Copland heard just before the recapitulation. The sensitive and nuanced collaboration of Arutyunian and Gordon presaged an exciting recital for the (shamefully moderate-sized) audience.
Next we heard Claude Debussy’s Première rhapsodie. From a simple opening this work expanded into a broad compass, embracing a multitude of styles as it spanned the clarinet’s range. Only here did I wonder if a greater sense of metrical play and sway (elsewhere present on the program) would not have been a welcome addition – but I may be overly influenced by Debussy’s sensuous and melismatic writing for flute.
We remained in France for Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 184. The opening movement, marked Allegro Tristamente, was hardly sad. Beautifully and sensitively performed, this allegro seemed more a dance wafting on the Mistral – poignant rather than triste. Surely Poulenc’s music transcends the composer’s own efforts at delimiting it? The second movement, Romanza, was filled with the longing, desire and sadness that the opening movement’s marking would seem to invite. It showed an engagement with the music of Shostakovich: this was a romance in a turbulent world, doomed ere it began. The finale, Allegro con fuoco, recalled a manic circus, here executed with bravura and brashness.
Following a brief pause, the musicians returned to the stage for Alexander Zfassman’s Intermezzo. This concert piece is a cross between mid-century jazz and the score of a Hollywood noir film: captivating, thrilling, familiar (even on first hearing). Arutyunian embraced the idiom and performed it in a musical style that reminded me of Pete Fountain.
Arutyunian took the stage alone for Franco Donatoni’s Clair for Clarinet Solo. In two movements, this work was the most challenging on the program. The technical challenges were not an issue for the performer, who switched agilely between octaves and registers as the composition implied multiple musical voices despite the single performer, the single column of air, realizing the work. Rather this work was musically challenging for the audience, both because of its idiom and its harmonic language (both so very different from the rest of the works on this program). The audience ended up embracing this work, inspired by the clarinetist’s passion for the composition.
Gordon Solon returned to the stage for the final work on the program: Paul Schoenfield’s Four Souvenirs (arranged by Charles Neidich). This work hints at different musical genres: Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley, and Square Dance, respectively. Each movement uses and riffs off the rhythmic or musical expectations of the movement’s title; these are protean souvenirs, recalling familiar music even as it says something new, unique about styles and levels of musical register – a familiar trait across Schoenfield’s œuvre. These were captivating musical memories.
The rousing applause brought the performers back to the stage for an encore: Adolf Schreiner’s Immer Kleiner (Always Smaller), a showstopper calling for the clarinetist progressively to remove parts of the instrument, beginning with the bell and ending by playing only the barrel with reed. Arutyunian and Gordon rose to the challenge of this piece and made beautiful music, as well as theater. A challenge of any clarinet recital is to transcend the familiar sound of the instrument and present a variety of musical colors, tones. While this recital offered a similarity of idiom — 20th-century music straddling the chasm between high-brow and popular (Donatoni being the exception) — Narek Arutyunian and Solon Gordon presented a wealth of colors, voices, articulations. We heard dazzling technique in the service of coherent and considered chamber music.