Classical CD Reviews

“David Shifrin and Friends” – AARON COPLAND: Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet; STEPHEN HARTKE: The Horse with the Lavender Eye; AARON JAY KERNIS: Trio in Red; ELLEN TAAFFE ZWILICH: Concerto for Clarinet and Ch. Orch.– David Shifrin, clarinet/Ch. Music Northwest – Delos Records

A winning collection that should appeal to clarinetists and chamber music lovers.

Published on October 5, 2012

“David Shifrin and Friends” – AARON COPLAND: Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet; STEPHEN HARTKE: The Horse with the Lavender Eye; AARON JAY KERNIS: Trio in Red; ELLEN TAAFFE ZWILICH: Concerto for Clarinet and Ch. Orch.– David Shifrin, clarinet/Ch. Music Northwest – Delos Records

“David Shifrin and Friends” – AARON COPLAND: Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet; STEPHEN HARTKE: The Horse with the Lavender Eye; AARON JAY KERNIS: Trio in Red; ELLEN TAAFFE ZWILICH: Concerto for Clarinet and Ch. Orch.– David Shifrin, clarinet/Ch. Music Northwest – Delos Records DE 3424 (Distr. by Naxos) 79:12 *****:

David Shifrin has been well known as one of the country’s great clarinetists for many years. His work as artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest in Portland dates from the early 1980s and served in a similar capacity for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center from 1992-2004. He is a gifted performer with a warm, attractive tone and fluid technique. David specializes in a very sensitive and appropriate approach to phrasing and making long line melodies sing (as is especially evident in his award winning Delos recording of the Mozart Concerto.)  This recording with CMNW features Shifrin performing a very interesting contemporary program with many of the same wonderful players he has worked with in New York for so many years; most notably Ani and Ida Kavafian, violinists and Fred Sherry, cellist. This wonderful recording features first class performances all around, including that of pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who plays in all but the Zwilich.

As good as the musicianship is in this CD, the real pleasure – and a couple of pleasant surprises – may be the music, itself. Copland’s Sextet is one of his best known and most often played chamber works. Dating from 1937, the Sextet shows clear influence of the jazz idiom which Copland fell in love with and often referenced, idiomatically. The Sextet also contains strains of the spiky rhythms and catchy short melodic bursts that would later manifest themselves in his ballet music such as Appalachian Spring or Billy the Kid. The Sextet is, also, actually a chamber re-writing of his 1933 A Short Symphony, written for Mexican composer-conductor Carlos Chavez. The single movement work has three clearly-heard sections, fast-slow-fast, and is built around a nine-pitch sequence (almost a tone row), exposed during the opening two measures. It is a fun and engaging work, but also has a reputation for being very difficult for performers.

Stephen Hartke’s The Horse with the Lavender Eye is a fascinating work based on a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek image; that of a merry-go-round that broke down. Hartke’s work exists in four movements that illustrate various types of non-sequitur, musical and visual. The first movement, Music of the Left, takes its imagery from Japanese ceremonial courts divided into two distinct ministries. In the music, the instruments all play with the left hand alone (for the most part). The next, The Servant of Two Masters, sounds just like a little musical battle for dominance where two instruments at a time play in true duo like fashion while the third plays jumpy little nuances that sound like vying for attention. The third movement, Waltzing at the Abyss takes its bizarre imagery from the title of a chapter of a novel by Machado de Assis and the author’s analysis of the direction the rising action takes to the climax. The fourth bears the wonderful title, Cancel My Rumba Lesson, after a character in a R. Crumb cartoon behaving quite erratically; the trio playing some very frenzied passages within. This is a most unusual work but certainly fun to listen to and performed quite well by Shifrin, McDermott and violinist Daniel Phillips.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Trio in Red is another truly enjoyable work characterized by contrasts in tone. He explains that his writing is often influenced by color. He frequently associates particular feelings and harmonies and timbres with particular colors. So, the first movement, Orange Circle, Yellow Line, is – in Kernis’s vision – modest, lyrical and slow with just hints of “turbulence” (The musical equivalent of the “dampening” that happens to red when infused with some yellow). The yellow is removed in the second, Red Whirl; a wild, nearly demonic foray into forward motion with hints of klezmer music. I find many pieces by Kernis to be quite energetic and captivating, this work being very rewarding.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich wrote her Clarinet Concerto (with chamber orchestra) at about the same time the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks occurred. She explains that the second movement, in particular, became an elegy of sorts. The piece opens with a bustling that sounds very urban and a bit jazz inflected. The second movement, Elegy, is – indeed – sudden in its shift of tone and the very serious nature that overtakes the work. The third and fourth movements together tend to paint a picture of the urban environment rebuilding itself and, ultimately, ending with a sense of serenity (or, as the booklet notes point out, “a note of cautious optimism”)

This is really one of the better clarinet discs I have encountered all year. I have long admired David Shifrin’s playing and his obvious artistry. The same is true for the supporting staff. The members of CMNW represented here as some of the world’s best musicians. Every composer represented here should not require an introduction. If Copland is the historical founder of an “American” sound in music; then Hartke, Kernis and Zwilich are some of the best known and most respected of his “descendents.”   I recommend this recording strongly for the performances, the music and the marvelous sound quality by the engineers at Delos.

—Daniel Coombs




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