Congenial musicians in some favourite pieces


Luke Carbon & Alex Raineri

Move Records MCD 615

Having prepared Elliott Gyger‘s taxing duet that gives this CD its title, clarinetist Luke Carbon and pianist Alex Raineri performed the work throughout 2019. They put in the time, so the duo determined that their labours required a life beyond the ephemeral and, solidifying this decision, have recorded it. You can hear why these musicians went the extra mile or twenty to get this difficult score into the studio and out to the public: its demands are continuous, right up to the shrill last bars; both executants have to exercise a knife-edged mutuality of precision while the work shows an emotionally fluctuating character across each of its twelve sections.

Apart from giving a fine airing to the Sydney composer/academic’s 32-year-old score, Carbon and Raineri have produced an almost chronologically sequential tour of works that they have enjoyed playing together. They begin with the fulcrum of clarinet/piano works in Brahms’ Sonata F minor No. 1 of 1894, followed by Berg’s Four Pieces dating from 1913 which are still as sphinx-like as ever. A small reverse pulls us back twenty years to Amy Beach’s Op. 23 Romance, the clarinet taking over the original violin line. Staying in America, the young musicians exerting themselves on a young man’s music: Bernstein’s 1941-2 Clarinet Sonata, written during the prolific composer’s early 20s.

This makes for a solid exhibition of the duo’s individual and collegiate talents and, despite my habitual Doubting Thomas premonitions, the CD turned out to be a hold-all of some eloquent and informative interpretations. Most immediately impressive of these is Liquid Crystal, a crescendo that stops just short of an explosion. It opens with a burbling fast duo for both instruments: very close writing that calls for split-second timing. Then follows a sort of question-and-answer segment that moves across both instruments’ range, followed by a set of apostrophes for the clarinet with keyboard punctuation. From here on, the intersecting becomes less clear obvious although the developmental character is cut from a common cloth in a language that is percussive and, for much of the time, whimsical.

I lost track of the chain of segments when Gyger’s developmental processes and variations increased in sophistication and (as I’ve said) the segmental distinctions proved less obvious (my middle name). You can discern when a new section has happened, if not where the boundary lines are, and the intention to give the players an equal say in proceedings is handsomely achieved, the composer testing his interpreters with parts that ask for executive brilliance and a keen eye from both on what the other is up to. The score also illustrates its paradoxical title in a textural ambience that combines the fluent with the hard-edged. As far as I can tell, Carbon and Raineri fulfilled the composer’s requirements through an authoritative, enthusiastic reading.

Liquid Crystal is the CD’s last track; the Brahms sonata sits at the other end and proves to be a competent interpretation, if one that presents as somewhat imbalanced in Raineri’s favour. The pianist takes every opportunity to stress the work’s expansiveness, its emotional control and assurance. Carbon provides an outline that is more by the book and, while relaxed enough, misses out on weaving his personality into the clarinet thread. Phrases and clauses travel well, yet they lack individuality; not even a wallowing in the composer’s heart-warming mellifluousness.

On a first hearing, I thought that Carbon tried too hard with his high soft notes, determined to achieve as small a sound as possible – which you can hear in the work of many clarinetists, some of whom give you more breath than note. But this deficiency took place fewer times than I thought; indeed, the gentle approach worked to success across a very exposed point at bars 94-5. Some minor errors distracted, like a top register note that sounded marginally off-point, viz. the D5 in bar 187, and uncertain breathing when dealing with slow arches across bars 216 and 217 in the Sostenuto ed espressivo coda. Raineri put hardly a foot wrong, his work well exemplified by the sweeping, gradually subsiding grandeur on display between bars 116 and 135.

Speaking of the piano, the D flat 5 struck me as being off-colour in bar 20 of the second movement Andante un poco adagio, but other exposure points were ambiguous. Both performers sustained the score’s fluency, even if they didn’t invest much interest in the material, although Raineri employed a well-contrived rubato in the short solo space at bar 45. A more colourful patch came in the Allegretto grazioso and its landler suggestions, details like the piano’s hesitation at bar 28 a welcome infusion of irregularity. Carbon here found an amiable, calmly enunciated character, my only complaint a lack of force in his top C at bar 124. As for the concluding Vivace, this was an unalloyed success: humour without vulgarity, a spaciousness of timbre from both instruments, and an excitement that brought to mind those works where the composer rollicks so effectively – everything from the Academic Festival Overture to the D Major Symphony finale.

I once participated in a most villainous rendition of the 4 Pieces Op. 5 by Berg in South Yarra’s The Fat Black Pussycat club close to 60 years ago, accompanying a fine clarinetist who liked to fly through a work by the seat of his pants. Looking at it now, I wonder how we dared; different times, different audiences, I suppose, and this one wasn’t very concerned about exactitudes . . . or anything. Carbon and Raineri handle these pages with respect, observing every nuance of dynamic and production, careful to a high degree of refinement as in the unhurried climax to the opening Massig across bars 6 to 8, and in their whispered account of the following Webernesque Sehr langsam.

Carbon’s control showed at its best in the final two pieces where the quasi Flatterzunge direction gets a real workout and the required range reaches to the instrument’s extremes. You could rely on the concluding Sehr hastig flurries to No. 3 and, as far as I could make out, the hysteric pandemonium of bars 15 to 17 of the last Langsam piece was precise; it remained as disconcerting a passage as ever, once again impressing me as a series of splattering punches to the ear. Here, more than in Brahms sonata, Carbon’s soft notes work efficiently (with one exception) and the short sequence showed an interpretative empathy, avoiding the extremes of the ultra-scholarly and the hyped-up expressionist.

Amy Beach could possibly take over the mantle of encore-provider/program-filler from Piazzolla if more of her output is released commercially and taken up by willing performers. Carbon has made a clarinet transcription of her Romance and was hardly pressed by the undertaking which follows the original solo line, mainly at an octave’s distance. This timbral substitution changes the nature of the piece, especially at those moments when the original violin moves into a high tessitura, as at bars 18, 45, 62, 86 and for the ethereal conclusion at 114. It operates at several removes from salon music of its time, which, in America, means to me vapourings like By the Waters of Minnetonka or O Promise Me. While Beach’s work speaks a late Romantic language, its melodic felicity and stolid harmonization place it as an honourable mention in a genre honoured by Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Needless to say, the transcription gives no trouble to this well-rehearsed duo.

Before the Elliott Gyger work, we hear Bernstein’s sonata which, for something coming early in his composing career, holds resonances of later, better-known works including West Side Story, On the Town, the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs sequence, Candide, even some faint harbingers of the chaotic MASS. This interpretation sparkled in the right places (mainly the second movement Vivace e leggiero) and found both performers observing the remarkable transparency of the composer’s shadings, even through the opening Grazioso‘s more active stretches, e.g. between Letters H and L in the older Boosey & Hawkes edition. Only a touch of that uncertainty of carrying power in the clarinet part disturbed the easy flow of the second movement around the Lento molto at Letter J. But the fast-moving segments came over with an impressive light power, and the players’ handling of Bernstein’s rhythmic irregularities and alterations impressed for its level-headed ease.

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