Yu and the clarinet


Robert Schubert

Move Records MD 3351

Julian Yu

This CD is a testament to the friendship between clarinet master Robert Schubert and composer Julian Yu, as well as an illustration of the encouragement that one musician gives to another to broaden a particular instrument’s repertoire.   The recording sessions involved range from 2000 to 2012 and employ the talents of the Victorian College of the Arts Strings under Marco van Pagee and a collection of the soloist’s Melbourne University colleagues and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra peers past and present – flute Derek Jones, violins Isin Cakmakcioglu, Lorraine Hook and Deborah Goodall, violas Danielle Arcaro and Gabrielle Halloran, cellists Rachel Atkinson and Virginia Kable  –  as well as his wife, Akemi, on piano.

The five scores performed here are not the only ones by Yu that employ clarinet; just those where that instrument is the dominant voice.  The earliest, Sol Do La Re for clarinet and string trio, dates from 1985; Atanos, eleven years later, is written for flute, clarinet and string trio; The Lamentations of Micius for clarinet quintet comes from 1998; a 2000 triptych based on poems by the emperor Li Yu, Silent and Alone, asks for clarinet, piano and string quartet; and the latest music, from 2002, is the Concerto on Chinese Themes where the VCA players support Schubert.

Yu is a remarkably able writer and arranger, his professional equipment ever prepared for the task, whether it be original composition or arranging other composers – and here his activity is more expansive than I’d thought: Tchaikovsky, Palchelbel, Saint-Saens, Holst, Glinka, Janacek, Ligeti and Berg – or writing ‘fusions’ with masters like Mozart, Biber, Beethoven and Mussorgsky.  His activity level is high, as is his facility, which is a very apparent quality on this disc.

The most recently written music, the concerto, sounds the most traditional.   In the classic three-movement format, it is constricted by its melodic material, the tunes it uses not remarkable in shape.   The work begins with a slow introduction foregrounding the soloist who occasionally concludes a phrase with that ‘falling’ break you can hear on Chinese folk-music recordings.   The work changes pace to a fast allegro with lots of action for both clarinet and strings, the effect being mainly that of ‘busy’ music.  In the middle slower movement, it seems that one tune only serves the writer’s purpose and the impression is calm and placid, if reminiscent of a travelogue sound-track.   The finale is, of course, rapid and packed with twittering and trilling, the texture relieved by a segment involving woodblocks.   But Yu treats his basic material in a surprisingly orthodox manner, with very little here to ruffle any anti-modernist feathers.   It’s a pleasant enough entity, a fine vehicle for Schubert’s voluble C instrument, but very concerned to give the Chinese folk-tunes a plain and non-challenging setting.

The philosopher Micius (Mozi) grieved apparently about the  way silk was adulterated by being coloured, marring its original pristine state – just as man is ruined by increasing contact with a corrupting world.   Yu imitates the ch’in (zither) with plenty of initial pizzicati for Cakmakcioglu, Goodall, Arcaro and Atkinson before the texture alters to a more communal mesh where the wind player’s long notes are mirrored by the strings, although the emotional atmospheric changes are more dependent on the quartet than the clarinet at the score’s central point.   Yu’s suggestions of grieving oscillate; you have moments of sedate resignation, then energetic dissatisfaction, even menace and, under all, the restlessness of those pizzicati that seem determined to disturb the despair of Micius.   Here, Yu’s vocabulary is emphatically contemporary, loaded with disjunct leaps and juxtapositions.   Still, The Lamentation of Micius is an odd choice of subject, especially as the philosopher himself denounced music as a wasteful activity.

Atanos brings Jones’ flute into play straight away with Cakmakcioglu or Goodall (both are credited in the CD booklet), Arcaro and Atkinson joining to move this brisk jeu d’esprit forward.   A small group of motives are sprayed lavishly across the ensemble’s sound and range spectrum but the composer is principally concerned with using ornamentation to inform his country’s melodic lines, not simply transpose a tune holus-bolus into a Western chamber-music or harmonic garb.   In this piece, you can soon discern his use of scraps of phrases over and over, his texture pointillist and rapid-fire with plenty of doubling for the two wind instruments.   But whether the music is rapid or meditatively paced, its character is optimistic, quick-witted and content, the final pages an object lesson in economy of material, vaulting from near-stasis to a happy and communal rush of blood.

Using a tone-row, Sol Do La Re opens with those notes on Atkinson’s cello before Arcaro, Schubert and Cakmakcioglu join in the expansively argued fugal-type texture.  Written as an exercise while Yu was studying in Japan, the piece is a fine contrast with its predecessor on this CD: measured in pace, sticking to the same rather heavy rhythm, packed with references to technical devices, this almost abnegates personality for a  kind of academic gravity that interests for the manner in which it suggests tonality by its row’s disposition and the trend to concordance that runs throughout its brief length.

The Silent and Alone pieces are brief atmospheric vignettes with Schubert taking the vocal line that featured in the original version of this work.   He is supported by Akemi’s piano standing in for the first version’s harp   – Hook, Goodall, Halloran and Kable a quartet representing the chamber orchestra that Yu wrote for in the first place.   Since We Parted is a brief poem that centres on a melancholy longing for home; in this vision, the speaker is unhappy, but resigned while the strings suggest his inner urge to be on the move back with an impotent repetitive rhythm.

The title poem, probably the most famous of the emperor’s surviving pieces, poses the solitary speaker on an isolated tower beneath the moon, finding a self-reflection in a courtyard tree as the pang of parting strikes his consciousness with unexpected force. The piano sets out a haunting 8-note ascending figure over which the clarinet softly broods, interweaving with the strings to establish a soft mood of detached despair; only a brief burst of energy disturbs the music’s even flow to end almost as it began.

Lingering Thoughts puts the poet in a landscape fringed by mountains, vast sky and misty water where he is embroiled in the surroundings by his thoughts.  The seasons change but the expected traveller doesn’t return and the poet is left with moon and wind to populate his solitariness.   Here again, there is a surge of life before a voiceless conclusion.  The music throughout each of these pieces is reflective of European art song, even an impressionist-style scene-painting, but the colour is not daubed on in the Debussy Pagodes manner; the Chinese element stays recessed – present, but not blatant.  And the CD as a whole serves not just as a monument to Yu’s writing for clarinet as solo but also as an expertly accomplished exhibition of the composer’s range of abilities, in particular the charm of his lyrical line and the jaunty expertise of his instrumentation.

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