“Jennifer Showalter – European Adventure” – MALCOLM ARNOLD: Sonatina for clarinet and piano, Op. 29; DEBUSSY: Première rhapsodie for clarinet and piano; STRAVINSKY: Three Pieces for clarinet solo; BRAHMS: Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2, for clarinet piano; DONATO LOVREGLIO: Fantasia da Concerto, based on motives from Verdi’s “La Traviata” for clarinet and piano – Jennifer Showalter, clarinet/ Joel Clifft, piano – self CD 1001, 56:49 [Distr. by Phoenix Classical] ****:
This recital does take us to the far corners of Europe both geographically and aesthetically, but all the music conveys such an air of intimate congeniality that a listener won’t suffer the usual dislocations that this kind of travelogue might otherwise induce. We journey from one rival music capital (Paris) to another (Vienna), from the chill north (England) to the sunny south (Italy), from late-nineteenth-century Romanticism to pop-influenced modernism, yet we stay firmly in the realm of the ear-pleasingly tonal.
Malcolm Arnold’s fairly early Sonatina, debuted in London in 1951 by a clarinetist named Colin Davis (yes, the same), starts with a chortling clarinet over severe, four-square piano chords that recall Hindemith, but fairly soon we hear the familiar Arnold as the clarinet takes up a tune that is part jazz riff, part English music hall ditty. The placid Andantino second movement has a middle section with an air of mystery, though mildly comical turns of phrase tell us not to take things too seriously. The Furioso finale keeps both performers busy, the clarinet covering acres of grace notes, the piano fielding quick shifts from runs to chords and back again.
Likewise, we have easy-listening modernism from the inventor of musical modernism, Igor Stravinsky. The Three Pieces of 1919 were written for Swiss philanthropist and amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart, who bankrolled the premiere of L’histoire du soldat. The quiet opening is evocative but doesn’t sound especially Stravinskian. However, echoes of earlier masterworks, including L’histoire, emerge in the skittering second piece, which seems to mimic both the movement and sound of birds. Did Messiaen have this in mind when he penned his Le merle noir? The last piece has the fevered, jazz-fueled energy of the Devil’s ecstatic march that ends L’histoire.
Debussy’s examination piece designed for students of the Paris Conservatoire makes a good companion piece to the Stravinsky, reminding us of the Frenchman’s early influence on the Russian composer. The work starts with an air of mystery that quickly changes to a hothouse languidness which takes us back to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The second section is sprightly and balletic, the clarinet dancing from the lowest registers into its musical stratosphere.
The deepest music on the recital comes from Brahms’s compositional Indian summer, thanks to his acquaintance with clarinetist Richard Mülhfeld, principal of the Meininger Hofkapelle. This is the finer of the two sonatas of Op. 120, with a tenderly lyrical, nostalgically freighted first movement and a darkly expressive Allegro appassionato second movement that falls between scherzo and intermezzo in terms of both tempo and tenor. The last movement is one of the finest examples of a form that Brahms excelled in, theme and variations; the movement explores a range of emotional landscapes before settling into an exuberant coda bound to elicit smiles from performers and listeners alike.
The Fantasia by Donata Lovreglio may bring a kind of lightweight conclusion to this program, especially after the profundities of Brahms, but Lovreglio’s work is such a tasteful and appealing tribute to Verdi’s La Traviata that it ends up feeling just right. Besides, it introduces some of the most flat-out virtuosic music on the disc, giving both performers the best chance yet to show off their technique.
And both performers have technique a-plenty. Jennifer Showalter, who earned a master of music degree in clarinet at Northwestern, has studied with some formidable clarinetists including Clark Brody (Chicago Symphony), Robert Marcellus (Cleveland Orchestra), Sabine Meyer, and Larry Combs. She has played with a number of symphony and theater orchestras in California, most unexpectedly serving as principal clarinet with the Hour of Power Orchestra at Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral. That affiliation might lead you to expect her debut album would be in the crossover vein, but not so, despite the pop influences in the Arnold and Stravinsky pieces.
I’m glad, because the repertory she’s chosen gives a listener a much better idea of the technical prowess and emotional range of her playing. Both are impressive; Showalter gives us as fine an interpretation of the Brahms as she does of the frothier numbers on the bill of fare. She produces a secure liquid tone throughout her range, from the clarinet’s chalumeau register to its high tessitura. Maybe just a few of her runs in the busy Lovreglio Fantasia aren’t as clean as they might be, but for the most part she has no trouble articulating beautifully the most challenging music on the program. She’s found a very able accompanist in Joel Clifft, who is a considerate partner but can really make the piano writing in these pieces, some of which is quite difficult, take center stage when called on to do so. The pair have been recorded in a warmly congenial acoustic as well. This is an impressive debut and a very recommendable program for lovers of the clarinet and associated chamber music in general.
Brendel plays Liszt – Studio Recordings, 1955 – 1958 – Pristine Audio
Wagner, Verdi, Weber, Liszt… and Brendel!