“La Clarinette Française” = Works for clarinet and piano by POULENCE, DEBUSSY, SAINT-SAENS, BLOCH, PIERNE & MILHAUD – Zig-Zag

“La Clarinette Française” = FRANCIS POULENC: Sonata for clarinet & piano; CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS: Sonata for clarinet & piano; CLAUDE DEBUSSY: Première Rhapsodie; ANDRÉ BLOCH: Denneriana; GABRIEL PIERNÉ: Canzonetta; DARIUS MILHAUD: Scaramouche – Lisa Shklyaver, clarinet/Jos van Immerseel, pianoforte – Zig-Zag ZZT358, 66:40 [Distr. by Naxos] (4/28/15) ***:

The first thing that catches my attention when I looked at this album was the fact that here is another – and, as it turns out, very good – recital of French clarinet music. All of these pieces (with the exception of André Bloch’s Denneriana – are standard clarinet performance rep. These are some of the works that all serious clarinetists must know. So the next thing that catches one’s attention is the use of a “pianoforte” and that is not just a use of snooty terminology. Therein is the novel aspect of this album.

From the publicity release for this CD, “The desire to come as close as possible to the sound aesthetic of composers at the time of the first performance of their works, along with the simple pleasure of the sound of period instruments, guides Jos van Immerseel in his approach. One of the finest performers of French music, this recording, celebrating Mr. Immerseel’s 70th birthday, offers a panorama of French music for clarinet and piano from the early 20th century. Mr. van Immerseel has chosen to play an 1870 Bechstein piano, and Lisa Schklyaver a Dolnet, Lefevre & Pigis clarinet from 1930, in representing the sonority and poetry of the era.”

I am certainly no expert on the sonority of various period piano(forte)s but I am somewhat familiar with historic or vintage clarinet makers. The Dolnet line; in this case the makers Dolnet, Lefevre and Pigis were – and are – somewhat obscure instruments but which were pretty popular in France just before the improved technology and marketing of Buffet et Cie.  I will have to take Ms. Shklyaver’s word that the instrument she uses in this recording is one of – if not the – brands played at the premieres of these works. Although, we already know that Poulenc’s brilliant Sonata was actually premiered by Benny Goodman who played Selmers most of his career. So, just for novelty’s sake, placing both the clarinet and the piano in a seemingly “authentic” sound world is not a bad idea but it is just a bit clever for its own sake, in my mind.

I noticed very little difference in the piano lines, except maybe just a bit less projection, although I am not a pianist. Jos Van Immerseel is an excellent player, however. I heard just subtle and similar timbral differences in Lisa Shklyaver’s clarinet. I found just a bit of subdued tone (almost ‘stuffy’) in the low register – such as in the Lento of the Saint-Saëns and just a bit of ‘thin-ness’ in the upper/clarion register, such as in the third movement of the Poulenc. This particular clarinet has been well cared for and expertly overhauled it seems because many of these vintage instruments are barely playable.

Shklyaver is also a very fine player and these are good performances. Tempi are a bit reserved in a couple of places and she does manage to fight (and win) some intonation issues on that ‘DLP’ clarinet, especially in the Debussy, but these are very good renditions. The one piece that players probably have not heard of is the Denneriana by André Bloch. Bloch was a teacher at the Paris Conservatory (and no relation to Ernst Bloch that I could find) who fashioned Denneriana for virtuoso Auguste Périer in homage to the eighteenth century clarinet maker, usually credited with ‘inventing’ the clarinet. This is a fun and perky little work that has tinges of the Spanish colors that were very much the fad at the time, as in works by Milhaud, Ravel and others. Lisa Shklyaver apparently discovered this piece while researching this album.

For aspiring clarinet performers looking for a “definitive” recording of any of these works – save the Denneriana – I cannot honestly say this is the one to get. However, for experienced players who do know these pieces in depth and have other recordings, looking for a new approach and a bit of curiosity played well; this is a nice addition.

—Daniel Coombs

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