Sonata for Cello and Piano in B Minor
(adapted for clarinet & piano by Raphaël Sévère)
The role of the noisy neighbour in music history is an unjustly neglected theme for research but well worth considering in the case of Alexander Borodin’s Sonata for Cello & Piano in B minor (c.1860). Deeply imprinted on this work, from its ﬁrst bars to its last, are the memorable strains of the fugue subject from Bach’s Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin BWV 1001, which Borodin kept hearing coming through the walls of his apartment during an extended stay in Heidelberg.
Adapting Baroque thematic materials to the needs of 19th-century sonata form can be a tricky business, so after a bare-bones literal statement of Bach’s punchy, door- knocking theme, Borodin wastes no time in massaging its motivic play-dough into something more closely resembling a lyrical Russian folksong for his second theme.
Here, in the wistfully falling phrases and exotic harmonies of the Russian folk idiom is where Borodin ﬁnds the beating heart of his ﬁrst movement, and he stays in touch with its lyrical pulse throughout in a constant ﬂow of singable melodies and lush carpets of rolling harmonic underlay.
The Pastorale second movement strikes an even more intimate tone with a tender melody of the utmost innocence and simplicity, temporarily darkened by more troubling thoughts in a middle section that features a solo cadenza.
The ﬁnale opens with a ponderously solemn statement of Bach’s original fugue subject, but after a rhythmic makeover and a change of pace, it takes off as a sprightly drawing- room dance tune in the style of Mendelssohn. Cutting in, from time to time, is an achingly sentimental tune simply surging with a breast-heaving need to share. Bach’s fugue subject looks in again about halfway through to see how everyone is getting on, and after getting dragged into the party, ﬁnally gets the last word.
Witold Lutosławski’s engaging collection of dancelike pieces is written in the modernist idiom of Bartók and Stravinsky, using folk melodies popular in the north of Poland. Thinly scored and sparse in texture, this collection features frequent changes of time signature that evoke the improvised quality of village dance music. The suite is arranged in an alternating pattern of fast and slow movements.
The opening Allegro molto seems inordinately proud of the arpeggiated E-ﬂat chord that it trumpets at the outset, but then oscillates continually between major and minor, chasing its own tail in a staccato game of “What’s my key?” The same ambiguity is present in the pensive Andantino but here a long-legged melody creates a sustained mood of elegy and reﬂection.
The Allegro giocoso returns to the village playground with a skipping beat that straddles the divide between exhilaration and humour, unlike the following Andante, in which the clarinet mopes in the low range of the instrument while the piano marks time in even quarter notes. The concluding Allegro molto moves upbeat again, adding a note of merry taunting with its obsessive repetitions in the clarinet that seem to say to the piano: “I’m in E ﬂat and you’re not!”
In 1909 Paris Conservatoire director Gabriel Fauré asked Debussy to write a clarinet piece for the next year’s student performance exams. The result was the First Rhapsody, a vigorous test of the clarinetist’s ability to project a lyrical singing tone and demonstrate command of technical challenges ranging from quicksilver chromatic runs to chains of trills and rapid changes of articulation, all the while scrupulously following Debussy’s sometimes-ﬂuid, sometimes-ﬂorid rhythmic patterning—without the aid of unseemly foot-tapping, of course.
This work is far more than a simple étude, however. Its balanced sectional contrasts and ingenious construction around the opening motif announced by the clarinet, developed thorough a panoply of moods from dreamy reverie to scherzando friskiness, reveal how Debussy’s burgeoning interest in structure was replacing the pictorialism of his earlier works.
Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5
The so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg (the First School being that of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven) formed at the beginning of the 20th century in reaction to the diminishing aesthetic returns being pocketed from the smouldering remains of Late Romanticism, with its chronic chromaticism and
severely weakened sense of tonality. At base atonal, and eventually coalescing around the abstract compositional procedures of the 12-tone system, its proponents existed on a continuum of extremes, from the grandiose, hair-pulling, dental-procedure expressionism of Schoenberg to the almost-Canadian-level politeness of musical gesture in the silk-spun miniatures of Anton Webern. Of the three, Alban Berg was the composer who ranged most freely among the options presented by the new movement, even venturing back, at times, into a 19th-century sense of tonality.
In his early Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1913, we catch him opting for a Schoenbergian atonal vocabulary and embrace of extreme dynamics (from fff down to pppp) but with a Webernian concision and clear sense of dramatic shaping.
This is music for close listening, especially the endings, which recede into a sonic horizon too distant for words. What these pieces lack in shower-humming tunefulness they amply make up for in atmosphere, and an almost indeﬁnable Viennese charm.
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
The prodigious musical gifts of pianist, conductor, composer, and music educator Leonard Bernstein can already be heard in this, his ﬁrst published work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, written between 1941 and 1942 while he was still a young twenty- something student attending the Tanglewood summer music school where Paul Hindemith taught.
Hinting at the astonishing diversity of musical styles that Bernstein would later adopt as his own, this sonata moves conﬁdently between the rareﬁed language of mid-20th- century “serious” composition and the more direct appeal of the musical vernacular. It has been described as
a haunting work whose sonorities remind one alternately of religious incantation, the opening theme of Stravinsky’s Firebird and smoke-ﬁlled jazz clubs.
The ﬁrst movement opens with a wandering clarinet tune chaperoned by modernist counterpoint in the piano part, reminiscent of Hindemith. As the pace picks up, the piano’s chugging rhythmic ostinato give us the ﬁrst clues that West Side Story is only a decade away. While the movement’s formal outlines are quite loose, and development kept to a minimum, this movement’s melodic lines evoke a kind of cool yearning that presages the composer’s urbane Broadway creations of the 1950s.
An austere lyricism marks the opening of the second movement Andantino, which achieves intimacy by means of its slow tempo, steady pace, and sparse, almost spooky scoring.
The nimble pulse of Latino-inﬂected jazz (Vivace e leggiero) soon makes its appearance, however, and these two modes of musical appeal—the soulful and the syncopated—play alternately for the listener’s attention until both the clarinet and the piano get into it in a big way, trading riffs and taking their increasingly exuberant dialogue up to the high register for an exclamation-point ending.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015