French clarinet works by an eighteenth-century composer and a twentieth-century composer who’s definitely of the old school.
Published on May 18, 2012
FRANÇOIS DEVIENNE: Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in C Major; Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major; Clarinet Sonata No. 3 in B-flat Major; Clarinet Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major – Wonkak Kim, clarinet/ Eun-Hye Grace Choi, piano – Naxos 9.70150, 61:36 ****:
The Complete Works of LOUIS CAHUZAC = Concertino (from Baermann’s Quintet) for clarinet and piano; Pastorale cévenole for clarinet and strings; Arlequin for solo clarinet; Cantilène for clarinet and piano; Variations sur un air du pays d’Oc for clarinet and piano; Etude for solo clarinet; Fantaisie variée sur un vieil air champêtre for clarinet and piano; Sonata Classique No. 1 (from Gebauer’s duet) for two clarinets; Sonata Classique No. 2 from Gebauer’s duet) for two clarinets; Pastorale cévenole for clarinet and piano – Philippe Cuper and Philippe Olivier Devaux, clarinets/ Christine Lagniel, piano/ Les virtuoses de L’Opéra – Clarinet Classics CC0065 [Distr. by Allegro], 74:37 ***1/2:
In his short life (forty-four years), François Devienne managed to write a staggering amount of music, including, not surprisingly given his country of origin, twelve operas – some of them a hit in their day. However, as a flutist and bassoonist, as well as professor of flute at the National Institute (later the Paris Conservatory), Devienne dedicated himself mostly to works for winds, producing a dozen flute concertos and five bassoon concertos, as well as many duos and sonatas for the two instruments.
The four sonatas on this Naxos disc were arranged by the composer from four of hisFlute Sonatas Opp. 58 and 68; given the dearth of such music in the late eighteenth century, they constitute an important body of early solo chamber music for the clarinet. They were probably written originally with harpsichord accompaniment in mind, though I’m somewhat puzzled by this note from clarinetist Wonkak Kim: “The first edition of these sonatas only consists of a two-staff score for a virtuosic solo part for clarinet in C over a highly compressed and simplified bass line. As many have argued, however, Devienne’s classical style, following the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, does not suggest a baroque realisation of these unfigured continuo lines. Instead, the editions used in recording constantly feature ornate melodic lines given to the keyboard, according to the style of the period.” I confess I haven’t studied the issue too deeply, but it would seem to me that the later editions were probably based on Devienne’s original Opp. 58 and 68sonatas, which would have, one assumes, supplied much more than a skeletal outline of the accompaniment. At least the editions of Opp. 58 and 68 that I’ve seen have fully written-out keyboard parts.
In any event, I’d hardly call the melodic lines played by the piano “ornate.” In fact, they’re relatively simple and undemanding compared to those of Mozart’s sonatas for solo instrument and piano, not to mention Beethoven’s. This music is really all about the solo wind instrument, and so Ms. Choi has little to do in her accompanimental role, although she does that little well. No, this is Mr. Kim’s show, and he’s a fine advocate for Devienne’s elegant high-Classical music. While both the flute and clarinet allow for fluid execution of a melodic line, I think it’s fair to say that the clarinet’s key arrangement makes it a balkier, though only slightly balkier, instrument. So Mr. Kim is to be commended for executing Devienne’s quick runs, trills, and leaps with flute-like efficiency. He produces a clean, attractive sound from top to bottom of his range, injecting Devienne’s tender slow movements with a deeper sentiment—that’s especially true of the minor-key second movement of Sonata No. 1, which could almost be a Mozart Adagio.
Naxos’s recording from the University of Florida in Tallahassee is bright and clean and Kim’s playing makes this an attractive and valuable album, not least because only one or two of these four sonatas are currently available on disc. This is not just music for the clarinetist or the clarinet enthusiast but for all lovers of music from the age of Mozart.
It may appear somewhat eccentric to review the music of Louis Cahuzac (died 1960) along with that of Devienne (died 1803), but there is at least one reason to do so: as a composer, Cahuzac was definitely of the old school (although as a celebrated soloist he was responsible for any number of premieres of contemporary works, including first recordings of the Nielsen and Hindemith Clarinet Concertos). The Concertino andSonatas classiques recorded here are based on a quintet by Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847) and duets for clarinet and violin by Etienne-François Gebauer (1777-1823) respectively. The piano accompaniment may be a little zippier and riper of harmony than Baermann would have supplied, but the Concertino certainly doesn’t violate the spirit of the early nineteenth century. In the Gebauer piece, Cahuzac’s role is even more modest, I assume, simply arranging the original violin part for a second clarinet, resulting in a bubbly, buoyant vehicle for two gifted clarinetists to show their stuff. I’m more partial to the Baermann arrangement, with its chipper, athletic finale reminiscent of Weber. (Not too surprising since Weber wrote his famous clarinet works for his virtuoso friend Heinrich Baermann.)
I’m taking it on faith that the other pieces on offer reflect the influence of Cahuzac’s home region, the Languedoc province of southern France (the Pays d’Oc of Cahuzac’sVariations). The Pastorale cévenole, an evocation of the Cevennes mountains of the Languedoc region, has a languidly folksy air, but it’s no less sophisticated than a similar piece by Ibert or Francaix would be, while the Variations and Fantaisie are based on old melodies that have an almost hymn-like formality about them; the theme of theVariations sounds kind of like “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Both works, and especially theVariations, give the clarinetist ample opportunity to show off his technique, which I guess is the whole point.
All this music is pleasant, attractive, entertaining; it should be of real interest to clarinetists. For the rest of us, however, it’s hardly indispensable, as elegantly turned as the music is and as skillfully rendered by the virtuosic Philippe Cuper (his tone tarter, more acerbic than the unctuous Mr. Kim’s) and colleagues. On the other hand, if you fancy the clarinet, this well-filled disc will provide over an hour of diverting music and performances.