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A special eight-page section focusing on recent recordings from the US and Canada

Brahms Two Sonatas, Op 120. Clarinet Trio, Op 114a Marie Ross cl aClaire-Lise Démettre vc Petra Somlai pf Centaur F CRC3760 (80’ • DDD)

It’s wise to leave preconceptions at the door while listening to this captivating programme of Brahms clarinet works. The musicians play period instruments – not copies but actual clarinets, piano and cello the composer would have known and expected to hear in his creations.

Employing historical instruments is no guarantee that interpretations will prove searching or persuasive, yet what the clarinettist Marie Ross, pianist Petra Somlai and cellist Claire-Lise Démettre achieve is music-making that seizes attention, for many reasons. In addition to the clarity the period instruments can realise, the musicians impart to each score subtleties of tempo, phrasing and nuance that bring these seminal pieces into fresh focus.

The performances are more spacious – in some cases strikingly so – than usually encountered, especially on modern instruments. The second movement of the second Op 120 Sonata, for example, begins in broad gestures and continues with a middle section in which the players take the Sostenuto marking seriously, without a hint of ponderousness. As treated here, the music attains a heightened nobility.

Keen attention to expressive possibilities and flexibility pervades every movement on this recording. Gradations of dynamics are shown to be crucial in propelling phrases and allowing them to relax. Ross plays each clarinet (B flat for the sonatas, A for the Trio) with masterful fluidity and animation, minus vibrato, and Somlai brings commanding sensitivity to Brahms’s formidable piano challenges on an 1875 New York Steinway. Démettre, using gut strings and a Romantic bridge, applies bits of portamento that bring ear-opening touches to what we might have thought were familiar lines. Donald Rosenberg

Cunningham ‘Indiana Collectanea’ Concertant, Op 39a. Images, Op 34b. Noetical Rounds, Op 44c. Phases, Op 36d. Piano Sonata No 2, Op 33e. Polyphonies, Op 32f. Prisms, Op 30g. Scenario, Op 53h. Statements, Op 43i. Terzett, Op 54j. Triple Sonata, Op 42k k Alice Meredith l cBarbara Reising ob kJohn Scott cl dGregory Imboden bcl aPatricia Hackbarth, j Pakala Fernandez, jHarry Bell, jThom Gustavson hns aDavid Short, aMarshelle Coffman tpts aiJames Kasprowicz tbn aDavid Pack tuba cgMadeleine Schatz vn bgRaymond Stillwell va gGretchen Elliot, b Paul Friedhoff vcs bcJohn Hyslop db kMichael G Cunningham, ePatricia Montgomery, iMarta Senra pf dMary Jane Rupert hp fWilliam Albin xylo Michael Berkowitz cmari/fbass drum/fcymbals f Emily Kromer timp fRichard Henton tom-toms h Robin Kennedy, hTom Miller, hStan Jaworski, h John Fedderson, hBill Moehlenhoff multiple insts h George Gaber, bcKen Hart cond Navona F NV6270 (70’ • AAD) Recorded 1969 72

disc), played with spirit by Patricia Montgomery, the 1969 string trio Prisms, with which the disc opens, or the brief Terzett for three horns (1972 but revised after this recording, in 1986).

Prisms accurately defines Cunningham’s style, rooted in a chromatic free tonality, rhythmically vital but shot through with a more lyrical impulse. The other standout pieces are the brass quintet Concertant (1970; a second followed in 1986) and the engaging Triple Sonata for flute, clarinet and piano (1970), in which the composer is at the keyboard. The disc comes with minimal notes – mainly just a brief, general note from the composer – but the sound is acceptable; an invaluable document of a very specific time and place that can now be enjoyed by all. Guy Rickards

Debussy Children’s Corner. Études Aleck Karis pf Bridge F BRIDGE9529 (70’ • DDD)

This ninth disc from Navona devoted to the music of Michael G Cunningham (b1937)

concentrates on instrumental and chamber pieces written in a very concentrated period, 1969-72, when Cunningham was active on the campus of the then Indiana University (later Jacobs) School of Music. The recordings also date from this same period. For all that they show their age, with some roughness of acoustic and sound, I have to say that this is the most appealing disc of Cunningham’s music I have encountered. This is due, I think, to a combination of some rather effectively written works, enthusiastically and compellingly performed by students and campus members at the time.

The two percussion ensemble pieces, Polyphonies (1970) and Scenario (1972), are the epitome of this, the music’s drive and expressive complexity rendered with élan by the players. The other performances have a similar verve, whether the bracingly compact Second Piano Sonata (1969 – the only work given its opus number on the

When it comes to contemporary late 20th-/early 21st-century piano repertoire, Aleck Karis has few peers. He plays Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies with the same care, authority and innate affinity that he brings to Phillip Glass, sings rather than strikes at John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and effortlessly navigates Stefan Wolpe’s thorny waters. His Stravinsky is bracing and clear. And while Karis may not be the most debonair Poulenc pianist around, his recent release devoted to that composer (Bridge, 5/16) contained notably eloquent performances.

The question is how a pianist blessed with Karis’s mastery, cultivation, experience and intelligence can serve up such bafflingly unsatisfying renditions of Debussy’s Études much of the time. How dogged and literal No 1’s Czerny-ribbing patterns sound next to the similarly dry yet far more fluent Charles Rosen traversal (Sony). No 2’s frequent down-beat accents impart an emphatic, heavy-handed patina gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE MAY 2020 I

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