Debussy was never fond of the establishment. When he did accept a chair on the Board of the Paris Conservatoire in 1909, it surprised everyone who had regarded him as a musical rebel. But by that time he was ill, and was being prescribed exercise, morphine and cocaine.
He might have been in a euphoric state when he composed Première Rhapsodie, a clarinet-piano work for end of year examinees at the Paris Conservatoire. Debussy was so satisfied with the composition that he wrote the orchestral version of Rhapsodie the following year (1911).
On his latest album, Slovenian clarinettist, Blaz Sparovec, plays this ravishing, lyrical work with the Odense Symphony Orchestra. The first few minutes are spellbinding – think of dawn breaking and the sun very slowly rising and appearing through an enchanted forest shrouded in mist. Soft clarinet and violin lines lead into caressing violas playing a cluster of heavenly notes over and over. These few suspenseful bars feel Wagnerian – with Wagner it signalled the beginnings of a slow forming wave, but Debussy, the anti-Wagnerian, did not want to give us that. We hear violas and cellos play a faint pizzicato signally the unfurling light. A gambolling clarinet springs to life and takes centre stage, displaying its many different moods and tempos in the bosom of the orchestra, each set of instruments mimicking creatures coming to life. Absolutely gorgeous and great play by Sparovec, for this is demanding technically and physically for the solo clarinettist, who is never at rest throughout the 9-minute work.
Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for clarinet and orchestra is jarring after Debussy’s idyllic Rhapsodie bringing us back down to earth with a bump. Conflict, instability, and anger are the order of the day. This work is most famous for the use of snare drumrolls, which burst in when you are least expecting them. At first, they seem incongruous and ugly, but when you understand the creative processes behind their inclusion in the score and Nielsen’s intention, you not only accept their use, but find them rousing. Nielsen wrote this concerto with clarinettist, Aage Oxenvad, in mind, who was bipolar. Nielson himself was not at peace with himself. Lack of international recognition had made him depressed. Nielsen’s inventiveness was not to everyone’s taste and even to this day, he comes across as one pushing the musical boundaries.
Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski, was also keen to break musical moulds and sadly for him, his efforts were banned from public view by the communist authorities in Poland. The Party demanded folksy, accessible works and while complying in public, in private Lutosławski continued to compose music which went far beyond the folk dance. Out of his Dance Preludes for Clarinet Solo, Percussion, Harp, Piano and Strings (1955) on this album, the fourth dance (Andante) stands out with its dark, almost jazzy feel.
It seems fitting to wrap up the album with Aaron Copland’s upbeat, tender, playful and poignant Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano. The first, slow movement is a nostalgic balm, the stratospheric high notes suggesting both elation and sorrow. Clarinettist and jazzman Benny Goodman, who commissioned the work, made cuts to the score, notably the high notes, before his live broadcast on NBC Radio 1950. And yet is the unnaturally high melody which makes this work so special. Thank goodness, it is the original score we are treated to here. The jazzy-jaunty tone of Copland’s concerto is beautifully performed by Sparovec and the Odense Symphony Orchestra .
Highly recommended listening to those lovers of Debussy, Nielsen and Copland.
Blaz Sparovec Clarinet out on the 8th July 2021 https://www.orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100168-blaz-sparovec/