Sonata in F minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120, No.1
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In December 1890, at the age of 57, Johannes Brahms announced to his publisher Fritz Simrock that he was retiring from composition. Simrock had published the so-called Double Concerto, Op.102, two years before. That proved to be Brahms’s final orchestral work. In the intervening 24 months, Brahms had published three unaccompanied choral Motets, Op. 110. His String Quintet No.2 in G was premiered in Vienna in November 1890; Simrock would publish it the following year as Op.111. With that Quintet, Brahms appeared to bid adieu to his beloved chamber music as well.
The following summer, he renewed his acquaintance with Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the renowned Meiningen court orchestra. Inspired by Mühlfeld’s rich clarinet tone, expressive playing, and superb musicianship, Brahms took pen to composition paper and resumed writing. Before his inspiration flagged, he had completed a Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op.114 (1891); a Quintet for clarinet and string quartet, Op. 115 (1891), and two Sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op.120 (1894, published 1895). These four works were Brahms’s swan song in chamber music. Among them were his last movements in sonata form; his last intermezzo and scherzo; his final variations set. Collectively, they represent one of the most bountiful late harvests in any composer’s output. Music historians refer to them as Brahms’s Indian summer, sharing a gentle nostalgia. The clarinet sonatas in particular demonstrate superb craftsmanship and a tight, disciplined structure. Mostly, they are beautiful and moving music.
The clarinet pieces also prompted Brahms to resume a more public role in music-making. He performed the trio and both sonatas with Mühlfeld, and actually delayed the sonatas’ publication so that Mühlfeld could introduce them to various cities on tour. The violinist Joseph Joachim participated in some of these performances, too. That likely prompted Brahms to transcribe the two clarinet sonatas for viola (Joachim had begun to play a lot of viola), a process that necessitated some adjustments in octave registers. Clarinetists and violists have hotly debated the respective merits of the two versions ever since. Both groups lay claim to the Opus 120 Sonatas as late romantic masterpieces of their instrument’s literature. According to Clara and Robert Schumann’s son Ferdinand, however, Brahms considered the clarinet better matched with piano than any string instrument.
Although the outer movements of the F minor sonata are more active and driven than the Andante and the Allegretto grazioso, the overall mood is a startling contrast to Brahms’s other F minor works: the early Piano Sonata, Op. 5 and the magnificent Piano Quintet, Op.34. Those pieces are turbulent and occasionally angry. In this case, Brahms’s opening movement is predominantly lyrical despite his directive Allegro appassionato. Ivor Keys calls it ‘smoldering rather than explosive.’ One has a sense of austerity and restraint, leaving textures transparent so that we can hear the subtle intertwining of musical material between the two players.
The same close motivic unity pervades the two inner movements, which provide release of tension and contrast. The Andante, in A-flat major, is related to sonata form, but simplified to a song-like ternary structure. Serene and melancholy, it seems to ask questions from the opening phrase. The piano, in an uncharacteristically understated role, enhances the reverie. The ensuing movement, also in A-flat, substitutes a gentle Austrian Ländler for a scherzo, and exploits the lower register of the clarinet in the F minor middle section. Listeners who know the late Brahms Intermezzi for piano will recognize the style.
After these two introspective movements, the concluding sonata-rondo is downright extroverted, providing a complete mood shift. Three repeated half-notes in the piano set the tone, bell-like. They are a recurrent fanfare that help to unify the movement, which dispels any residual hint of melancholy with a happy F major romp.
Première rapsodie for Clarinet and Piano
Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918)
For most of his career, Claude Debussy avoided traditional classical genres such as concerto, sonata and symphony. Their structural rigors were incompatible with the sensual qualities of sound that he sought in his music. Glenn Watkins, in his insightful survey of 20th-century music called Soundings, has written:
[In impressionist art], form tended to be obscured and a dream-like atmosphere was pervasive. In the world of music, many of these same tendencies were endorsed through a mosaic-like approach to color; a freedom of formal inquiry that eschewed strongly contrasting thematic material or an emphasis upon . . . development; and a loosening of the rhythmic component to the extent that a sense of pulse or undulation tended to replace the organizing properties of the bar line.
Certainly these observations apply to Debussy’s Rapsodie, and oddly so in light of the work’s origins. He began work on it in December 1909 as a competition piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire. By early January it was complete, and Paul Mimart played the first performance on 16 January. Because so many clarinet competitors played it, Debussy (and the jurors) heard it nearly a dozen times.
Considering its original purpose, it is curious that the Rapsodie does not emphasize brilliant technique, though it is a very difficult work. Rather, Debussy concentrates on the clarinet’s distinctive tone color, broad range and expressive capability. He was fond of the piece, and orchestrated it in 1911. In that version, this luscious eight-minute movement is the closest we have to a clarinet concerto from Debussy. It remains a staple of the repertoire in both versions. Tonight we hear it in the original.
Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22
Frédéric-François Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin’s splendid output for piano comprises waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, ballades, scherzos, preludes, sonatas, polonaises, and mazurkas. A small handful of his works occupy none of these categories. The Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante is one of those anomalies: neither fish nor fowl. Indeed, it is unique in that it is a hybrid of two unrelated sections composed at different times. Furthermore, the piece exists in versions for solo piano and for piano and orchestra. It has fared better as a solo piece, as Jon Nakamatsu plays it this evening.
The actual title of the piece is Grande Polonaise brillante précédée d’un Andante spianato: that is, a polonaise preceded by an Andante spianato. The Italian verb spianare means to make level, to even out, to smooth. This opening segment of Chopin’s Opus 22 is spiritual cousin to his nocturnes. Idyllic and pastoral, it unfolds in a gentle rippling 6/8 meter like a barcarolle, almost in suspended animation. The body of the piece is in G major. The central section switches to 3/4 time and a chordal texture, but the atmosphere remains tranquil. Chopin’s celebrated finger technique and delicious counter-melodies invite both a delicate touch and rich tone.
The Andante spianato functions as an introduction to the flashy Polonaise brillante. Chopin makes the transition via a fanfare and a slick modulation to E-flat major. This sixteen-bar bridge is a reduction of the original orchestral tutti that ushers in the main Allegro. Essentially Chopin’s polonaise is a cross between rondo and variations. Each time the main theme recurs, he embroiders it with invention and sparkle.
Chopin’s sole public performance of this work took place on 26 April 1835. The occasion, the conductor François Antoine Habeneck’s benefit concert, was one of Chopin’s few Parisian successes with a large audience; he was more comfortable in the intimacy of a salon.
The exact chronology of the Polonaise is uncertain. It probably dates from 1830 or 1831. We know that he added the Andante spianato in 1834. The combined pieces were published as Opus 22 in 1836 in a sort of orchestral shorthand. The piece has become more popular as a solo vehicle, because of its remarkable combination of grace, elegance, and technical brilliance.
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Leonard Bernstein is universally beloved as the composer of West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide. Choral singers love his Chichester Psalms and Mass; orchestra buffs admire his Jeremiah, Kaddish, and The Age of Anxiety Symphonies. All these are major works requiring extensive performing forces. Relatively few listeners are acquainted with Bernstein's chamber music. The Sonata that Messrs. Manasse and Nakamatsu perform this evening was Bernstein's first published composition and his first recorded work. This skillfully crafted piece shows that Bernstein, then only 24, was no longer a student, but an accomplished composer with a distinctive voice of his own. At the same time, its dependence on his older contemporary Paul Hindemith shows us that Bernstein's musical personality was still malleable.
At this early stage of his career, Bernstein was better known as a conductor, but he was keenly interested in composition. During the summer of 1941, he studied conducting at the new Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, rooming at a nearby prep school with composer Harold Shapero, clarinetist David Glazer, violinist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Jesse Ehrlich. The Music Center faculty included German expatriate Paul Hindemith, who was highly regarded in the early 1940s. The Berkshire organizers considered him to be the crown jewel in their tiara of guest composers.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, Bernstein attempted to enlist in Boston, but was rejected because of congenital asthma. He busied himself by playing piano jobs and organizing public musical events. For one of them, a concert in April 1942 at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston, he decided to write a piece for his friend David Glazer and himself. The resulting Clarinet Sonata is widely regarded to be Bernstein's tribute to Hindemith's neoclassical idiom. Its angular first theme is especially reminiscent of the German composer, but the balance of the work bears the unmistakable imprint of Bernstein's own style.
The Cape Cod Files
Paquito D’Rivera (b.1948)
This evening’s program concludes with music by two composer/performers who are both crossover artists, in completely individual and distinctive ways.
Messrs. Manasse and Nakamatsu have independent reputations, but their partnership as duo-artists has flourished in substantial part because of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, where they have been co-artistic directors since 2007. In 2009, the Festival commissioned the Cuban clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Paquito D’Rivera to write a piece in honor of its 30th anniversary. The Cape Cod Files pays nominal tribute to its commissioning entity, but its real subject matter is D’Rivera’s myriad passions: jazz and swing, Cuban folk music, Argentinian tango and milonga, borderline atonal dissonance, and good old-fashioned boogie-woogie. The resulting composition is a feast for the senses, especially if you free your imagination. It is dedicated to Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu, who have performed it extensively on tour and recorded it for Harmonia Mundi.
The first movement of The Cape Cod Files is a tribute to Benny Goodman (1909-1986), the legendary ‘king of swing,’ on the occasion of his centenary. D’Rivera specifically sought to emulate Goodman’s jazz phrasing. The bluesy opening gives way to driving boogie-woogie.
Bandoneón takes its title from a type of button accordion related to the concertina. The instrument is closely associated with Argentinian tango. D’Rivera casts the movement as a milonga, the Argentinian term for a tango dance party. This one is mournful and expressive, suggesting the plaintive strains of bandoneón as a solo instrument.
D’Rivera’s composer’s note describes Lecuonerías as “unaccompanied solo clarinet improvisations around some of the melodies written by the foremost of the Cuban composers, pianist extraordinaire Ernesto Lecuona.” Celebrated for his songs and zarzuelas, Lecuona (1896-1963) toured Europe, the USA, and Latin America with his dance band, Lecuona’s Cuban Boys. Within this suite, the movement functions as a stand-alone clarinet cadenza that riffs on Lecuona’s tunes. Mr. Manasse recalls,“When Paquito and I discussed Lecuonerías, he told me ‘I didn’t write this for you; I wrote it against you!’”
Chiquita Blues synthesizes the 12-measure blues progression with danzón (a popular Cuban dance of 19th-century origin), and D’Rivera’s own spiky harmonic language. D’Rivera drew his inspiration from Chiquita (2008), a novel by Antonio Orlando Rodríguez that won the 2008 Alfaguara International Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in Spanish literature. Rodríguez based his book on the story of a Cuban singer of Lilliputian size (only 26" tall) who created a sensation at the turn of the 20th century. Chiquita Blues starts as a sexy rumba, with episodes that borrow from tango and murga, and, one suspects, some indigenous Cuban dances.
D’Rivera has a flexible and original approach to both harmony and rhythm. Each of these four pieces inhabits its own sound world, with modernist touches commingling effortlessly with the jazz and Cuban popular elements the composer has assimilated. A native of Havana, Paquito D’Rivera has been based in the USA since 1981. He is equally at home in classical, pop, jazz, and Latin music.
Two Rags from Four Rags for Two Jons (2006)
John Novacek (b.1964)
Long-time patrons of this series will recall the premiere of Novacek’s Four Rags here in Old Cabell Hall in September 2006, presented by this evening’s duo performers. Messrs. Manasse and Nakamatsu have chosen two movements of opposite personalities, highlighting the variety within this spirited set of pieces.
In addition to his distinguished career as a solo and collaborative pianist, John Novacek is the most successful modern proponent of ragtime since William Bolcom. He has written rags for violinist Leila Josefowicz as well as a series for piano and guitar called Novarags, which he recorded with his brother, guitarist Steven Novacek. When Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu asked him for clarinet/piano duos, Novacek adapted four of the Novarags. He says, “My own rags show various influences: classic ragtime, the blues, stride (that highly embellished offshoot of ragtime practiced by Harlem pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller), and country fiddling.” They work extraordinarily well in these arrangements for clarinet and piano.
“Fourth Street Drag” includes the directive ‘sauntering.’ Novacek is evoking the atmosphere of Manhattan’s West Village, where the West 4th Street subway station flanks Washington Square Park, a favorite place for New Yorkers to stroll. The relaxed gait suggests that the walker is out on a Sunday morning – perhaps dragging his feet a bit after overindulgence the night before.. A brief piano solo in the middle betrays the movement’s origins for solo piano, here with ad lib finger-snapping from Mr. Manasse. The two instruments’ integration elsewhere is seamless and graceful.
“Full Stride Ahead” takes us to the races. Clarinet opens with the call to the post, punctuated by dissonant, jazzy interruptions from the piano. Then the thoroughbreds are out of the gate, off and running. We hear a memorable interjection from the jockeys, who make it clear that they are enjoying the ride as they urge their horses to the finish. Novacek provides a surprise ‘winner’ at the close.
copyright Laurie Shulman, 2012