Thursday, February 4, 2010

In review--The Mozart Clarinet Concerto Cure

Jon Manasse (Clarinet) & Seattle Symphony
Mozart and Spohr Clarinet Concertos
Harmonia Mundi

I leap at the chance to review Mozart (1756-1791) recordings because as far as healing music goes, Mozart’s falls at the top of the list. I became a fan of Mozart in recent years because I had to grow into his music and experience life fully before this repertoire made sense to me. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major K622 is one of my favorite classical music pieces, if not one of my favorite all-around music pieces period. The second Adagio movement inspired another one of my favorite concertos, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (which is mostly reflected in the second movement). Both Mozart and Ravel were master orchestrators and employed instrumental voices to their fullest capabilities.

As a former Seattlelite, I felt pleased to discover a Mozart recording with Seattle Symphony on board and Maestro Gerard Schwartz at the helm. Guest soloist Jon Manasse seems at home performing this clarinet concerto and also the concerto by Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Manasse captures the playful spirit of the first movement, darting in and out of Mozart’s famous runs and playing with agility and grace. The clarinetist brings a delicate touch to the second movement with its hint of melancholy and enchantment. And Manasse handles Mozart’s mood swings with aplomb as he shifts back into a playful mode for the final movement. The clarinetist plays masterfully here bringing clarity to the various ranges of his instrument and he nails those runs in the high register with clear honey-colored tones.

Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto no. 2 in E-Flat major, op. 57 is brand new to my ears, but I can hear Mozart influences. And in fact, these two concertos dovetail perfectly into one another. Neither concerto features cadenzas (instrumental solos), and instead the featured instrument (clarinet) leads the orchestra by performing motifs echoed by strings or other woodwinds. Mozart hailed from the Classical era (which followed the baroque). The orchestras were still relatively small, the instruments were predecessors of the orchestra instruments of today (without the range or volume), and the music strove for balance in emotions expressed and in the musical structure. The Romantic era would follow with its star-studded virtuoso cadenzas and passionate musical outbursts.

Mozart’s music though quite complex, sports simple melodic lines performed on lead instruments and echoed by other instruments. A light bed of strings supports the lead instrument with other the voices of other orchestral instruments wrapping and swirling around the lead instrument. Personally, I find these hummable tunes, closer to actual songs than motifs (such as the motif that begins Beethoven’s 5th Symphony of the Romantic Era). I don’t know if these melodies and orchestration lend themselves to the healing power of Mozart’s repertoire, but I feel that these qualities play a huge healing role.

You can never have too many Mozart recordings and certainly adding Mozart and Spohr Clarinet Concertos performed by the masterful clarinetist Manesse is highly recommended.

Harmonia Mundi

Monday, February 1, 2010

In review--Fiddling Around

Alex Hargreaves
Adventure Music
Release date: 2-16-2010

Often when an extremely talent young musician comes on the scene, someone drags out a comparison to Mozart (one of the most famous child prodigies of all time). However, we forget that wunderkind types have always existed though they are labeled “Indigo” and “Crystal” children these days. These virtuosic youth take our breath away with their incredible talents and in some cases, maturity beyond their years.

Fiddler-violinist Alex Hargreaves, still in his teens, has already astounded renowned Americana musicians such as Mike Marshall (who produced Hargreaves debut Prelude), Darol Anger (appears as a guest musician) and David Grisman to name three. Hargreaves comes off as a fireball, playing those rousing staccato passages as well as, the more feeling lyrical ones. And he possesses the musical emotional maturity of a musician twice and maybe three times his age (17). He plays with confidence and poise and he composes pieces that recall the wunderkind musicians of Finland and other Scandinavian countries—think Frigg, or Annborg Lien. And if you want to stick in the Americas, think Natalie MacMaster of Nova Scotia.

Hargreaves mixes it up on Prelude with what I’m going to coin as “bluegrass chamber”, swing, jazz and even a soulful Stevie Wonder cover, Summer Soft which ends the recording. Many of the tunes shift between slow lyrical passages and in some cases, they venture into hoe-down territory. The opener, Shasta begins with Marshall’s lilting mandolin and then Hargreaves fiery fiddle rearranges the piece-this piece in particular recalls the crooked road compositions of Finland’s JPP. The following tune, Big Hook flies right off of the disc—a huge burst of energy.

The musicians slow it down and catch their breath on the Pat Matheny cover, April Joy then they step it up a notch and recall French swing on There Will Be Another You/Not You Again in which Hargreaves brings out his St├Ęphane Grappelli chops. Guitarist Grant Gordy also swings like crazy. Lonesome Clapper breaks out into a bluesy-grass jam session you don’t want to miss with another wunderkind musician, bassist Paul Kowert and banjo player Noam Pikelny trading off solos with Hargreaves.

This delightful recording with its traditional Americana that mirrors Nordic fiddling too travels well on a crooked road filled with lots of surprises and a few musical jolts. And like a luxurious hot bath, immersing yourself in this collection of songs has an invigorating, yet relaxing effect.

Adventure Music