Richard Stoltzman’s Sunday afternoon recital at the Gardner Museum conveyed additional evidence of the profound and peculiar place he has held as a master of the clarinet over the last 40-odd years. All of the Stoltzman hallmarks were on display: the incredibly smooth and fluid technique, the projected sense of complete technical command, the vibrato, the kaleidoscope of tone color, the interpretive surprises. Capable of teasing out completely different timbral qualities from each note in a scale, and willing to do so in performance, he eschews the ideal of a clarinet sound that is consistent over the range of the instrument in favor of creating an intensely personal voice. The clarinet can have a distant quality, which in the hands of a merely competent player can result in music of great beauty that doesn’t quite touch the heart—attractive but soporific. No one will accuse Stoltzman of inducing sleep. He is a craftsman of the intense moment, of the suddenly soul-piercing phrase, of the unusual gesture that opens up new interpretive space. This can leave the maintenance of the musical superstructure somewhat under-attended, or left to other hands: not all works or collaborators can live comfortably under his roof. Happily pianist David Deveau is one of them, and as accompanist he provided a strong, powerful and intelligent foundation for Stoltzman’s flights.
The afternoon began with Songs of Sea and Sky, a duo from 1987 by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died in 2014 at the age of 85. The piece is made of six sections that examine a “dance song” from the island of Saibai, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, primarily through two lenses: one is angular, intense and loud, rhythmically restless; the other melancholy and tinged with hymnody, an reference to the missionary music introduced to the island in the 19th century. Schulthorpe’s mostly tonal, often dramatic composition found Stoltzman twice standing on a low platform the better to play loudly and directly into the strings of the piano, resulting in a harmonic aureole around the melody. He was unafraid to push the limits of the instrument, risking integrity of tone for greater impact. A passage of frantic birdsong caught the attention as well, both calling to mind Messiaen and reminding me how Messiaen’s birds sang in the composer’s own distinct voice; Sculthorpe’s creatures retained more of their own calls. Twice the music seemed ready to settle down and end in a nostalgic hymn, before trailing off quietly.
Next followed the weightiest collaboration on the program, Brahms’ F-minor Sonata, Op. 120, No. 1. As one of only a handful of truly great such duos, the music is etched into the brain of all clarinetists, and it can be a struggle to find new ways with it. Stoltzman provided a performance so detailed and variously inflected it risked fragmentation, but Brahms’ sense of architecture and Deveau’s heroic, powerful, un-showy way with the difficult piano part provided enough gravity to hold the work together. Simrock published the sonatas for “Clarinet (or viola)” but Stoltzman’s deployment of all the colors of the instrument definitively claims the work for the former. His close attention to the measure-by-measure evolution of the sound demonstrates how attentive Brahms was to the different possibilities of each of the instrument’s registers. An initially understated first movement built up momentum motive by motive, a creative discomfort underlying the development until the coda, where the harp figures in the piano calmed the clarinet down and brought it to something like rest. Then followed a second movement that moved at a brisk walk while preserving its lyricism; an italicized version of the third movement with its juxtaposition of flowing melody, rude dance and, in the trio, sphinx-like declamation; and a head-long and brilliant finale.
After the intermission, much the same techniques were brought to bear on Schumann’s three Fantasiestücke, Op. 73, with less success. Schumann’s rather diffuse writing (again, the publisher indicated ad. lib. violin or cello) needed a stronger hand to direct it, to help shape a narrative, and the result that was despite the clarinet’s profusion of variety, the overall effect was somewhat monochromatic.
Leonard Bernstein’s two movement Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was his first published piece, and after decades of neglect has begun to inhabit a place in the recital repertoire. Considered even by the composer to still have a “student element” about it, it is nevertheless notable for how it reveals the inception of Bernstein’s compositional personality. The first movement, a Grazioso with a subtle darkness about it, speaks in a gentle French-inflected neoclassical voice that has Pistonian 1940s Harvard music department genes. The second begins with a brief introduction that ends with two great chords that can be heard as West Side Story’s “Somewhere”—and which kicks off a spiky, jittery, jazzy second movement complete with smears and syncopations. The composer’s voice still has a long way to go—the movement made me think as much of John Adams as anyone, with its repetition and fragmentation—but there’s no doubt it came from Bernstein’s pen. I’m ready to call Stoltzman’s way with this music definitive, with its alternating suavity and brashness, with a dry wit animating it from within.
The afternoon ended with Jay Gach’s arrangements of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano, which despite handing off most of the melodic line to the clarinet still afforded Deveau plenty scope for extroverted display. The arrangement sacrificed some of the barrelhouse gusto of the original, but replaced it with something sly and seductive—interesting in its own right. For an encore, the sold-out audience at the received an improvised meditation on “Amazing Grace” that Stoltzman performed while slowly walking around the floor of the Calderwood Cube as if in benediction.
The Calderwood can be cruel and drying to string players, but it responded well to the clarinet and piano on this occasion; it offered no supporting resonance, but none was needed. Apart from the encore, the performance was directed to one side of the hall; I faced them directly and was not surprised I could hear well, but friends on the opposite side up in the third balcony reported no dissatisfaction with balances, either.