by | Apr 26, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Black Bird = SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73; JOHAN KVANDAL: Fantasy for Solo Clarinet, Op. 68 No. 2; GRIEG (arr. by KYRRE SASSEBO HAALAND): –  Lyrical Pieces; HAALAND: Sort Fugl (Black Bird); TRYGVE MADSEN:  Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 23; STRAVINSKY: Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano; SAINT-SAËNS:  Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 167; FINN MORTENSEN:  Sonatina for Solo Clarinet, Op. 9 –  Fredrik Fors, clarinet/ Sveinung Bjelland, piano – 2L multichannel SACD 2L 55, 69:05 (Distr. by Naxos) ***1/2:

Though this disc features works from Germany, France, and Russian by way of Paris, it has a decidedly Scandinavian accent, which is fine. It includes works by composers who aren’t household names even in Scandinavia, and it’s good to make their acquaintance. While some are modernist in their bent, the prevailing stylistic skew here is toward the conservative.

A case in point is the attractive Clarinet Sonata of Trygve Madsen. Listening blind to this 1980 composition, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a long-lost work of Francis Poulenc, circa 1940 (the year of Madsen’s birth). It lacks the cheekiness and satirical thrust of Poulenc at his best, but the dreamy second movement and bustling finale are otherwise first-rate Poulenc imitations, intended or not.

In the case of Kyrre Haaland’s Black Bird, which supplies the album’s title, imitation is intentional. Written in 2008, the Messiaen centennial year, it’s a tribute to a composer whose avian affinities are legendary. The brief work takes its name from one of Olivier Messiaen’s best-known compositions, Le merle noir (“Blackbird”) for flute and piano, and like that piece, Haaland’s evokes birdsong and manages to exploit the wide range of the clarinet in interesting and unusual ways.

Otherwise, Haaland appears on this disc as arranger. His arrangement of three of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces—“Butterfly,” “Eroticon,” and “To Spring”—for clarinet and piano is very effective, especially the first, where the clarinet’s liquid tones make it the perfect butterfly, flitting around the garden on pianistic breezes.

Along with Black Bird, Finn Mortensen’s Sonatina is the most modernist composition on the disc. It’s twelve-tone music with a lyrical bent, without any of the squeak-and-blat you hear in so many serial compositions for wind instruments. Thankfully.  Mortensen does experiment a bit—there are some unusual flutter-tongue effects, for example—but this music presents few hurdles to the listener.

Saint-Saëns’s comfortably old-fashioned Sonata of 1921 sits well even in this company. It’s a lovely work with a bustling, virtuosic finale where the clarinet toys with some daring chromaticism (at least by Saint-Saëns’s standards) before the work ends with the serene strains of the opening measures. It seems almost like a self-portrait of the composer, whose busy life was to end shortly after he wrote this piece.

Turn to the Stravinsky Three Pieces, written three years before the Saint-Saëns, and you seem to be in different musical world entirely. Stravinsky’s music is jumpy and angular, like others of his compositions of the nineteen-teens. In fact, it sounds like an outtake from his L’histoire du soldat, written the same year, so if you like that work, you’ll enjoy this.

I’ve left the Schumann for last because it is the one disappointment I had with the program. The Fantasiestücke is one of my favorite chamber works by Schumann, but I have to say that although the composer directed it could be played on a variety of instruments (including violin), it sounds best to me on cello. Maybe that’s because I first encountered it in a recording by Leonard Rose, and I hear that rich, baritonal “voice” in my head every time I listen to the piece. I just can’t get used to the alto strains of the clarinet in the work. Still, I can enjoy the piece on clarinet in a fine performance, but I find the approach taken by Fors and Bjelland somewhat matter-of-fact. That impression is underscored by a too-quick tempo in the second movement. It’s marked Lebhaft, leicht (“Lively, light”), but these performers shave at least 20 seconds off of everybody else’s timing in the movement. What’s the rush?

As long as I’m griping, the recording isn’t entirely to my taste. Though recorded in a church, there’s not a great sense of the hall. The sound is clean and natural, but the miking is just too close for me. I’d like a little more perspective than I’m given.

Other than that, I have only good things to say. The program is as varied as you’d like, and the quality of the selections is uniformly high. Fors is a protean clarinetist who sounds as comfortable in contemporary works as he does in a high-Romantic vein; he produces lovely and loving sounds throughout the program. So despite a couple of objections, this is certainly a SACD that clarinet enthusiasts should hear.

-Lee Passarella

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