CD Review–Mozart & The Contemporary

CD Review

Mozart & The Contemporary: Mozart/Russo/Schlenck/Fan/Hoffman

CRS CD 1191

What can I say about this canonic work, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, K. 581? It puts me in a happy place, as I have not heard it for many years.  Although I do not hold Mozart in quite the esteem many others do, this piece is absolutely wonderful, and I will leave it to those who have already written about it to describe it better than I.  If nothing else, have a look at the performance of the Quintet in the final episode of the TV series M*A*S*H,  as an example of how popular culture can, on rare occasions, show genuine respect for classical music.

The recording sound has a lovely intimacy here, as if recorded in a moderately-sized but nicely alive room.  The string quartet (and the clarinet) remain unobtrusively in the middle of the stereo field, a touch which is reminiscent of the older mono recordings, yet which still preserves the stereo space.  Reminiscence is also active in the performances, as The Old City String Quartet, all recent graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music, evoke older quartets like the Guarnieri in their expressive yet understated playing.  As always, Russo’s playing also evokes older masters of the instrument through his emphasis on tone, which always carries through even in the most intricate passages.  I highly recommend this performance both for its absolute quality, and its links with classic older interpretations and recordings.

 John Russo’s Clarinet Quintet begins in a manner quite different from his Sonata No. 6, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Although the gentle diatonicism of the Sonata is present, there is a much more declarative sense to the music, a Stravinsky-esque angularity which, while still largely diatonic, brings in many chromatic notes by virtue of the fact that the oft-used interval of the major 7th tends to stretch the tonal boundaries, resolving to notes (and chords) which are foreign to the diatonic. However, because of their placement, these notes become an expressive rather than merely dissonant factor in the music.  These disjunct intervals add a “reaching” quality to the music as well; and, because I have a feeling they grew primarily out of the needs of the ear rather than any invented system, are simultaneously sweet and sour.

The second movement starts out largely in conjunct tonal motion, yet finds its way to some dissonances outside the diatonic via stepwise rather than disjunct interval motion.  These dissonances are treated to some extent as passing tones, and remind me of some of David Diamond’s string writing, particularly the Rounds for string orchestra.  The chromaticism thickens in the center, yet the essential tonality is preserved in the clear and simple melodic lines in the clarinet ,which rise out of the dense string chords. This is a texture beautifully suited to the instrumentation of the Quintet, highlighting the clarinet yet dwelling intently on the strings.  A bridge in which all instruments are momentarily chromatic ends on a kind of half-cadence which introduces the next movement.

The Andante third movement works more and more towards the chromatic, which finally wins out in what is either strict or free dodecaphony—uncharacteristic of Russo’s writing, yet which still catches the attention through the characteristic forward propulsion of his melodies and textures.  This is definitely not Milton Babbit’s dodecaphonic writing, as Babbit’s owes much to the serialization of most of the parameters of the music, whereas John’s writing seems only serialized in pitch-class.  The essential expressivity is preserved in natural rather than pre-programmed progressions of rhythm and timbre.

John Schlenck’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings sets a tone characteristic of the composer: textures somewhat more fragmented than Russo’s, and more chromatic.  In the first movement, Schlenck’s preference for using limited scale resources (in this case an eight-note scale which happens to be the octotonic) is refreshing in a compositional world where, often, “anything goes”, and gives a particular focus to the music.

The Rondo second movement also seems to be built on a particular scale (the hexatonic collection in this case), which gives it a jazzy and almost Arabic major/minor oscillation.  Although I still appreciate the consistency of the scales, by the time the end of this movement is reached I am ready for more extended tonal practices; a greater variety of scales.   Thankfully, Schlenck delivers this right from the start of the final movement, which has more tonal and gestural freedom than the other movements.  At moments he returns to the consistency of the first two movements, which is a nice touch in context.

Mina Fan’s String Quartet No. 2 owes much to the Bartok Quartets; indeed, it almost seems a tribute to them in several respects.  According to the liner notes, the piece is “a modern realization of arch form”, certainly a favorite of Bartok’s.  There are many textural nods to the Quartets, though perhaps it is the folksong of her native China that she is incorporating rather than the Hungarian folk melodies of Bartok.  An eminently listenable work, it shows her a composer of much promise in her mastery of quartet writing as learned from Bartok and Prokofiev.

Larry Hoffman’s String Quartet No. 2, by contrast, is entirely American, specifically an excursion into the Blues. It contrasts  straightforward blues writing–which would be playable by a cafe orchestra or blues pianist—with passages reminiscent of Roy Harris (a composer not directly influenced by but who influenced jazz).  The whole is surprisingly unified, which shows just how much serious American composition over the years has been influenced by jazz (and the other way around).

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

CD Review–Clarinet Sonatas

CD Review

Clarinet Sonatas: Brahms/Brahms/Russo/Schlenck

CRS CD 1190

As a reviewer of mostly contemporary music, it is difficult for me to say anything new about canonical works like the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas.  Whatmakes a work canonical in the first place is a critical mass of reviews and opinion—which the Brahms certainly has–so a review of the performance in this case is most appropriate.

The Curtis Institute has produced an impressive number of legendary performers over the years, and Ang Li and John Russo are clearly two of this number.  In the Brahms, Ms. Li has a fine sense of the overall drama of the works, holding the attention in a particular movement from beginning to end.   John’s clarinet playing has that same sense of the whole, but what makes his playing stand out so much from his contemporaries is a full-bodied tone.  His deep understanding of the varied timbres of the instrument at different tessituras is a subject to which he has obviously given much thought, and which he shows off wonderfully here.

John Russo’s Clarinet Sonata No. 6 starts in that mode of amiable diatonicism characteristic of many composers of the American style, but perfected by only a few: early Arthur Berger, Norman Dello Joio, and John Russo, to name a few.  At its best, this approach combines chords carefully chosen for their sonorous value with melodic lines often highly disjunct in the motion of the intervals; yet the music remains approachable to an untrained ear because of the fundamentally diatonic nature of the scales employed.  This opening is characteristic of the best of the genre, with a deep simultaneous understanding of harmony and melody.  As the first movement progresses, the clarinet adds polytonal touches skillfully placed to color and not intrude upon the general mood.  The rest of the movement is a genuine dialogue, each instrument having its own highly idiomatic motives—characteristic and sonorous statements in the piano, and florid polytonal comments from the clarinet, with which the movement concludes.

The diatonic piano/polytonal clarinet ideas are further elaborated in the second movement, this time with an erudition reminiscent of Stravinsky; changes of meter and rhythm abound, and the whole has the feeling of the recitativo writing characteristic of Stravinsky’s transitional works of the early 1950’s, when the recitatives of late neo-classical works like The Rake’s Progress were elaborated a few years later in the long selectively atonal statements of Threni. The middle section keeps this sensibility, yet recalls the first movement in its dialogue between the principals.  This time, the piano has absorbed some of the polytonality of the clarinet, and the clarinet reciprocates by its diatonicism. The return of the beginning textures becomes an apotheosis, with magnified gestures, and piano and clarinet are finally united in a blend of polytonality and the diatonic.

The Toccata begins as an extension of the second movement texturally in the piano, then rapidly becomes an imitative call and response between the principals.  One particular motive, appearing around 1:30 into the track, recalls the Barber Toccata in its alternation of repeated notes with large disjunct leaps, and is wonderfully pianistic.  What follows is largely linear and polytonal, with occasional recitative chords–borrowed from the second movement–in the piano to offset the linear writing.  By this time the piano, having thoroughly absorbed the character of the clarinet, contains material almost identical to it; yet, near the end, the keyboard reminds us of its essentially harmonic nature with some well-chosen chords. However, I would not say that the piano merely absorbs the clarinet style, for the arpeggios and general direction of the music are well-suited for the piano, as the progression of notes in the clarinet are very much chosen with the unique fingering of that instrument in mind.

John Schlenck’s Clarinet Sonata No. 2 immediately brings us into the more chromatic world of composers like Roger Sessions and (again) Arthur Berger, who managed to bridge the gap beautifully between the neo-classical and neo-chromatic American styles.  This piece is a reflection on those two different styles, for both appear in a kaleidoscopic manner throughout the first movement.  The shifts between are adeptly handled, as when around 4:00 the Session-esque rhetorical statements shift color to Copland-like sonorities and textures, reminding me why I appreciate both styles.

The Andante continues these shifting styles, encompassing both in the clarinet’s short solo introduction.  I would almost say both styles are used simultaneously, creating an autumnal landscape of solos and duets which take the form of a theme and variations. I particularly like the variation at 3:00, as I immodestly observe that it somewhat resembles this author’s own compositional style in its preference for stacking the interval of the third.   The logical outcome of such thirds-play is the jazzy variation which follows, where the thirds are now major/minor “blues thirds”, and the movement swings accordingly.

Another toccata begins the final Allegro, after a while autumnal again in its preference for melancholy clarinet lines.  By turns lyrical, declarative, mischievous, it handles the “American Scherzo”  form quite well. As I have stated before, this particular style is not generally to my liking, as it tends to eschew counterpoint and development in favor of effects. However, Schlenck’s skillful counterpoint—a mix of Sessions and Copland this time—again bridges the gap between the diatonic and chromatic American idioms quite successfully, and points the way to a synthesis of techniques beholden to no “ism”.   In other words, no expressive content is sacrificed to the constraints of a particular style.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

CD Review–Works for Clarinet

CD Review

St. Petersburg Orchestra, John Russo, Clarinet: Works by Nielsen, Russo, Diemer, Schlenck, Hindemith.

CRS Master Recordings  CD 0887


From Moscow with Love, John Russo, Clarinet: Works by Copland, Russo, Pellegrini, Schlenck, Hindemith.

CRS Artists  CD 0584


John Manasse plays 3 Clarinet Concertos: Works by Mozart, Nielsen, Copland.  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, cond.

XLNT Music  CD 18011

In comparing two performances of the Carl Nielsen and Aaron Copland clarinet concertos–John Russo and John Manasse– I am drawing from the three CDs listed above.  Listening to the first movement of the Nielsen, the thing that strikes the listener up front is not only the more spacious sound of the Russo, but the vigor of Russo’s–and the St. Petersburg orchestra’s–playing.   Knowing Nielsen’s somewhat idiosyncratic later style–long melodies suddenly broken by sections of fragmented motives, and the attendant stark contrasts–I was immediately impressed with the greater dynamic and gestural range of the Russo performance, the attention to those idiosyncrasies which are such an integral part of the work.  Russo also knows well the possibilities of the multiple timbres of the clarinet, and how to bring out those timbres for maximum effect.  He reminds me as a composer why I have written extensively for the instrument.

This aforementioned spaciousness of sound in the Russo is perhaps most necessary to the second movement.  Here Russo is genuinely a soloist, whereas Manasse often sounds merely like another member of the orchestra.   Nielsen is most in his idiom here, and Russo determinedly and beautifully wrings timbre and tone from the instrument.  With the entrance of the main theme of the third movement, contrasts in dynamics and texture become pivotal to an understanding of the work as a whole.  Manasse’s entrance is executed in the style of perhaps a Mozart divertimento; Russo’s is pure Nielsen, full of rollicking humor, and the multiple timbres to prove it.   The third movement cadenza really brings these two different performances home: rarely have I heard such a marked contrast in performance style.  Russo reminds us again that the clarinet is one of the most colorful of  instruments, and that Nielsen created a truly idiomatic work for it.

Russo’s performance comes from what is perhaps an older–and in my opinion better–aesthetic: he takes many risks.  Although his performance is as error-free as Manasse’s one gets the sense that he is always on the edge, always pushing; that he is creating the music as he plays it, and not just playing it back.  I suppose if one were looking for absolute clarity and balance one might prefer the Manasse, but that is really not the point of this music.  The contrast between the performances is such that, if I did not know this piece already, I would likely come to the conclusion that the music itself is a bit directionless in Manasse’s interpretation, but a near-masterpiece in Russo’s hands.

As for the Copland, these two performances again create two almost different works.   In the first movement the Manasse is slower, perhaps a nod to the reverent quality of the music; but the Russo is at once faster yet more incisive, and more expressive.  One need not be overly slow to be reverent; Copland and Stravinsky both looked back to the Baroque masters, where motion was always maintained even in the most hushed moments. This becomes most evident just before the cadenza, where the ravishing music seems paradoxically to drag a bit in the Manasse,  yet  fills us with the rarest emotions in the Russo.   Yet again, comparing cadenzas is comparing two different worlds.  To some extent the wider variety of timbre and tone apparent in the Russo has something to do with the recording itself, for the Manasse seems more muffled, and was perhaps better live.

The second movement is not my favorite Copland, as it suffers from the outdated quirkiness which afflicts much “fast” American music of the last century–evident in works by Harris, Schuman, Piston, etc.–and which has been thankfully supplanted by a less theatrical Classicism in the quick movements of more recent Americans such as Michael Torke.  There are many jazzy bright spots, however, and Russo shows his intimate knowledge of jazz–the concerto was written for Benny Goodman–in his superior ability to “swing” the written rhythms.  Bless him, he does not play the thing as written!  In the final clarinet portamento, Russo really remembers the beginning of the “Rhapsody in Blue”, and although Manasse does a creditable job with it, Russo brings out the dangerously shrill edge we all remember from the best performances of that old chestnut.

On the St. Petersburg Orchestra CD there are additional works by John Russo, Emma Lou Diemer, John Schlenk, and Paul Hindemith.  John Russo’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra starts out in a  more contemporary realm than I am used to for his music (indeed the first and fourth movements are written in a twelve-tone context), but the craft behind the music very shortly asserts itself, and it becomes apparent that not only does this music possess a fine inherent logic, but is particularly suited to showing off the the colors of the instrument, not only played “straight” but with a multitude of contemporary effects such as flutter-tonguing.  It is to the composer’s–and performer’s–credit that these effects are above all used musically. A return to Russo’s skilled “American” style is evident in the gorgeous second bagatelle, particularly poignant after the jaggedness of the first.  Long lovely disjunct melodic motion echoes Copland yet is original, as is the composer’s sensitive use of harmony.  Midway through the movement, a reminiscence of the first bagatelle recalls the larger context of the piece.  The third bagatelle is a capable étude for the clarinet, played with gusto on Russo’s part.  The final bagatelle returns  to the atmosphere of the first, contemporary yet always musical, and even in the midst of dissonance one hears the striking harmonic and melodic emotion that is so accessible in the second bagatelle, and which ultimately aids us in understanding this more difficult music.

As a composition student of Emma Lou Diemer’s I found her to be a particularly unpretentious and straightforward teacher whose ultimate aim in teaching was to lead her student towards best developing her/his nascent style—perhaps the most valuable thing a teacher can give–in a profession that often in this century invites “rhetoric to the table”: composers knowingly–or unknowingly–promoting certain compositional techniques in favor of others.  Diemer’s Poem of Remembrance starts out quietly and proceeds like a discursive pastorale; then, at about 4 minutes in, suddenly takes a wonderful and expressive turn in the form of a tremendous climax.  This leads to more “discussion” between clarinet and ensemble—as always, Russo’s playing is of the highest order technically and timbrally.   Diemer’s gentle yet expressive harmonic sensibilities keep the pastoral quality more interesting than most, and expressive string stabs near the end lead to an apotheosis refined, lovely, yet unaffected as the composer herself.  The coda is a divine statement worthy of the best of Arthur Honegger’s work.

Schlenk’s Jazz Raga is precisely that—a piece in jazz melody and syncopated rhythms written over a raga scale.  As in the Copland, one has the sense that Russo is creating this–improvising–as he goes along, as he swings the written material greatly.  I almost wanted more swing—perhaps the solidity of the backing orchestra in the Copland allowed Russo even more freedom—but his mastery of tone, timbre, and technique is quite fully realized here.

The recording quality in the Hindemith Quintet is not up to the standard of the rest of the disk, as it appears to have been remastered from what was perhaps an analog source.  The piece is ably described in the liner notes, although I might add that it is one of Hindemith’s revised works–written in 1923 and redone in 1954—revised likely to incorporate many of the newer elements of his musical language as well as tone down early rhetoric.  Such rethinking was a habit of his in later years.  Russo’s playing–and the ensemble’s–is up to the standard of the rest of the disk, though not as apparent at first due to the lesser recording quality.

Gregory Hall



James Cohn: Concertos and Tone Poems.  Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Vakhtang Jordania, cond.

XLNT Music  CD 18010

Mr. Cohn’s music exists in strong contrast to the prevailing Manhattan Uptown–academic–and Downtown–minimalist and pop-oriented–musics.  It is quite thoroughly and deliberately old-fashioned.  Nineteenth-century musical gestures abound, from arpeggiated trumpet writing around the most basic overtone series, to an abundance of octave writing for the piano.  I have to admit up front that it is difficult for me to review these works, as I have grown used to reviewing mainstream contemporary music, and canonical works from the past.  I have little context for contemporary music that “exists” in the same period, so to speak, as the classics.

The problem I think lies in the notion of musical gestures, as I mentioned earlier.  Those gestures–textures, harmonic progressions and melodic development–exist in a time before mine; thus it is hard for me to review this as “contemporary” or “classic” music as it fits in neither category.  There is little for me–or an ear inured to various kinds of contemporary musical rhetoric–to hold onto here, and I feel this music would be of interest largely to people who have little patience with anything written after Stravinsky’s ballets or Schoenberg’s Guerrelieder.  Listening to this music highlights for me just how much music changed after 1914. The sole exception appears to be A Song Of The Waters, Variations on Shenandoah.  This could perhaps be music by William Grant Still in the quasi-impressionistic harmonies, but the aesthetic is still firmly locked in the nineteenth century of American composers such as Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick.  Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel there are many people so thoroughly alienated by the overtly experimental aesthetic of the twentieth century that an almost complete return to the previous century would be balm for the soul.  However, much as I have issues with experimental music from the past century, it is difficult for me to go back that far in analyzing music contemporary to our time but stylistically previous to the twentieth century.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.