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Ivory, Catgut and Licorice

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/18/2002 -  
Alban Berg: Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano
Arnold Schoenberg: Fantasy
Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano
Igor Stravinsky: from L'Histoire du soldat
Claude Debussy: Premiere rapsodie
Maurice Ravel: Violin Sonata
Bela Bartok: Contrasts

Sabine Meyer (clarinet)
Gidon Kremer (violin)
Oleg Maisenberg (piano)

When Mahler’s cuckoo sang in fourths rather than the conventional thirds of Beethoven and nature itself, a new persona was created for the clarinet. No longer the colorful ornament of Mozart or the consoling voice of Brahmsian nostalgia, the still relatively young instrument approached a new century stridently, piercingly. Ever after, its repertoire expanded to include the cry of anguish that culminated in the Promethean Nielsen Concerto. Both Berg and Stravinsky wrote chamber pieces for the clarinet, Berg’s with piano accompaniment and Stravinsky’s for clarinet solo. Gerald Finzi composed the haunting Bagatelles and the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings and Arnold Bax the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Francis Poulenc chose the clarinet to eulogize his friend Arthur Honegger and wrote the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano as a memorial to him. Ironically the first performance of the piece was actually a memorial to Poulenc, as he died soon after its completion. The sonata is very similar in mood to his Elegie in Memory of Dennis Brain for Horn and Piano and chronicles the progression of grief from anger and frustration to eventual placid acceptance. Bartók wrote a very unusual piece for clarinet, violin and piano called Contrasts which is filled with bizarre rhythmic stops and starts and extremely jarring harmonic dissonances. This music is an ultramodern expression of primitive ritual dance which Bartók collected as an ethnomusicologist in the remote regions of Romania and Hungary. The prevalence of the clarinet as a jazz instrument inspired works by Stravinsky (Ebony Concerto), Copland (Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano), and Morton Gould (Derivations for Clarinet and Band). The instrument is also extremely important in the Kleine Kammermusik #2 of Paul Hindemith and the wind quintets of Schoenberg and Nielsen, in the latter of which it must imitate animal noises. The Sonata #1 of Brahms has been orchestrated by the contemporary Italian composer Luciano Berio, who has also added his own interludes between the movements.

Fully decked out in 20th century regalia, the clarinet was featured last evening in a survey style recital of its legacy. Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók: the entire short list of major chamber composers between Mayerling and Hiroshima. Sabine Meyer has come a long way since being the Rosa Parks of Central European orchestral equality and immediately established her credentials as a fine artist with a quiet read of the Berg. Visibly distracted by the early stages of audience influenza, she never allowed the ambient competition to force her volume level, preferring instead this delicate, almost breathless interpretation. Suggestions rather than statements also characterized her role in the Stravinsky, as she allowed Mr. Kremer to pound out the staccatos in his (literally) foot-stomping manner. If there was a virtuoso piece of the evening, it was the Debussy and Ms. Meyer dazzled the previously phlegmatic and phlegm-laden crowd with her musicianship, eliciting the only really heartfelt ovation of the night.

The violin and piano pieces were understated almost to the point of preciousness. Although the Webern profited from this sotto voce approach, the Schoenberg, a retrograde inversion not only back to tonality but also Romantic passion, whispered out for a more ardent interpreter. Compared to the Menuhin, for example, this Kremer rendition was antiseptic and fueled the fires of anti-Schoenbergian polemicism unnecessarily. Surely, this violinist is highly competent technically, but I often question his innate musicality. The Fantasy performance was less an examination than an autopsy.

Menuhin was probably on my mind because of his marvelous story about the first ever performance of the Ravel. The composer burst into the studio of Georges Enesco while the master was instructing his young charge. Yehudi was thus able to hear the duo play through the new piece once with the music and then experience the wonder of hearing Enesco immediately perform it again from memory. This is a work that needs some sense of history and place and Gidon Kremer simply does not have (or perversely chooses to ignore) it. Fans of Django Reinhardt will recognize the signature le jazz hot blues style by perusing the score, but might have missed it entirely if present at this recital.

Contrasts was premiered at Carnegie by Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti, but not, as popularly supposed, the composer at the piano (Bartók did record it with this famed duo shortly thereafter). Tonight’s performance was a microcosm of the entire concert. While Oleg Maisenberg provided a solid grounding, Kremer created his desiccated landscape while Meyer sang and danced within it. Especially in the Verbunkos, a Gypsy tune used to lure ingenuous peasants to enlist in the Hungarian army (and, presumably, hasten their own demise), she intoned seductively and a bit naughtily. Her fast passagework was truly a treat, her narrative style the perfect opposite of the violinistic desert background. This particular combination worked well in the piece (it is called contrasts, after all), but seemed as if it might simply have been a lucky accident.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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