A Clarinet in America and the American sound

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What is it that makes American classical music of the 1940s and 1950s so distinctive and so different from ours from that period? For one thing, it is so very upbeat.

I asked myself this question this week, as I listened to Clarinet in America, which showcases music by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Miklós Rózsa. I was surprised by how much there was to be gleaned from this quintessential American music which fizzles with energetic rhythms and which takes its inspiration from New York city and the North American wide-open spaces. 

American composer, Aaron Copland was born in 1900. The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. Copland came to creating  that American sound through a roundabout route. First stop was Paris in the 1920s, studying under the influential composer and teacher, Nadia Boulanger, who immediately recognised his talent. On his return to the US however Copland soon decided to create his own American style in music. 

In Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with harp and piano) the clarinet sails way above the strings. The clarinet’s notes are so high and fragile, I feared the reed would crack! But the general sense is of nurturing harmony, the strings gently taking us on a slow, rocking journey. The clarinet mischievously breaks away from the sweet melody, leaping and gambolling into the next much faster, busier, second movement which contains many jazz elements. Not surprising as the ‘King of Swing’, Lenny Goodman, commissioned this concerto and got to play his clarinet on the first radio broadcast of the work,6th November 1950.

Meanwhile Copland’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano sets a very different tone. It was dedicated to Copland’s friend, who died piloting a war plane in 1943. The slow movement Lento is particularly poignant, Bach-like in its opening on piano and clarinet playing a death-march. The piece was originally written for violin, but on clarinet, its lower register is perfectly pitched for such an elegy to his dear friend, so mournful and sympathetic and played with great sensitivity by Fiterstein. The lightness and energy return in the final movement, bell-like sounds suggesting that life goes on, but we must not forget. This is a beautiful work and the end bars on piano, the last heartbeats, are literally heart-stopping!

Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano came well before his hit musical West Side Story, but the Latino melodies and rhythms that ended up in his musical, are already audible in this early work written circa 1940. It was particularly noticeable in the sonata’s second movement, the Andantino-vivace leggiero, where amongst the staccato piano and syncopated rhythms suggesting a train journey, I heard the musical line of “America” coming through. 

Meanwhile Sonatina for Clarinet Solo Op.27, by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), is an excuse for Fiterstein to really let loose and show us his great dexterity on the clarinet. I found his play quite mesmerising.

 This is a beautifully produced album with great performances by Fiterstein, Chris Hopkins on piano and English Chamber Orchestra. Highly recommended.

KH

A Clarinet in America releases on February 12th 2021. https://www.orchidclassics.com/releases/alexander-fiterstein/

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