James Wegg Review

by James Wegg

The more discs I review, the more music I seem not to have heard of but wish I had. Three cheers to Navona Records for capturing these performances and sending them out into the world.

Variously Blue more than lives up to its name. Beginning with jazzy, arid lines where only the clarinet (Vasko Dukovski) can’t quite manage the same degree of shortness as pianist Alexandra Joan and violinist Jennifer Choi. Still, the three combine with an energy that will keep all listeners on the edge of their seats.

From there the ear is rewarded with agitated conversations and bell tolls heralding an oily clarinet slinking about the soundscape as well as an infusion of repetitive notes and snippets adding significantly to the overall allure.

Some of the variations are decidedly blue and a few “blue” notes provide still more variety. The music is so curiously at one with the shared passion of The Third One (cross-reference below: a non-musical “threesome” that, nonetheless, is also beautifully presented).

This set is ideally balanced (both performers and engineer Ryan Streber). Witness the finely rendered busyness in the Rite of Spring-echoing sections soon followed by the tonic of solemn, menacing variants: in the first of these, the piano pushes while the violin and clarinet provide needed balm. After a decidedly wild ride, roles are reversed and it’s the piano that cools off the heat.

Choi singlehandedly infuses the atmosphere with nervous tremolo before a beautiful hymn of acceptance—pushed forward by dollops of syncopation—reassures all, paving the way for the violinist’s absolutely stunning changes of register, their apparent effortlessness belieing the skill required.

One last hurrah—peppered by a series of slides where Dukovski is at his slippery best—leads to the tension-filled closing measures. It’s only appropriate that the final statement is almost entirely in unison: just as is the mindset of composer Gerald Cohen with this intrepid ensemble.

I deliberately chose not to look up the translations of the five titles which comprise Sea of Reeds. Here, Cohen succinctly proves why the only thing better than one clarinet is two!

“Hariu Ladonai” continues the jazzy feel and flow of Variously Blue: the two clarinets (Ismail Lumanovski joining in) blend well just as the edgy rhythms and metres entice. An airy clarinet line and gentle piano—full of emotion—begin “Adonai Ro’I Lo Echsar” before the second songle-reed entry adds still more colour to the palette with discreet vibrato. This movement wants to find its way to a Broadway musical as the BIG love song. “Dodi Li Va’ani Lo” is the highlight, with the clarinets doing their magic together or apart; Joan’s left-hand—like the finest double bassist anywhere—keeps everyone moving steadily forward.

In much the same vein as “Adonai,”, “Y’varech’ cha” offers a most lyrical, somewhat whimsical waltz. The clarinets’ sotto voce effect is a tad too breathy for my taste, but the harmonizations more than make up for that slight quibble. “Dayeinu” is a marvellously optimistic finish, replete with a brief flashback to the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas—or was that just my inner child hearing things?

Yedid Nefesh—a suite in five continuous movements based upon a Sephardic song—is an intriguingly varied soundscape that artfully employs clarinet (Dukovski), viola (Maria Lambros) and piano (Joan) to telling effect. Curiously, the ear ends up demanding that the same forces deliver their version of Mozart’s Kegelstatt trio for an encore, which may surprise some as to how many similarities there are between music then and now.

Length-of-note execution—especially in “Scherzando”—is the best match of the disc. Lambros soars to the upper reaches with passion and an intense lyricism that deftly contrasts the busier moments. Dukovski demonstrates his mastery of control, notably in the “heavenly” reaches where embouchure, reed and breath-support combine for incredibly delicate speech. Always aware of the overall goals and flow, Joan thrusts and parries as required: unforgettable are her contributions to the thoughtfully retrospective “With quiet motion, flowing” right from the opening rocking scale.

Cohen’s imagination, sense of balance and contrast are expertly employed, making this work a truly cohesive whole and the highlight of the recording.

Grneta Variations continues to demonstrate just how good Cohen is at taking a germ of an idea and expanding it into a varied, logical journey into fine art and personal meaning. The three amigos are at the top of their form, delivering a largely conversational set that never becomes argumentative. Moments of “catch me if you can” and full-cry clarion calls (a touch saucy no less) give way to wonderfully poetic section where hints of Brahms 4th symphony and vrai “Feelings” soothe the soul and captivate the ear. Those using headphones may find the clarinets’ key clicks somewhat annoying, yet they combine to send a few down memory lane, recalling the distinctive sound of baseball cards clicking against bicycle spokes—especially when the tempo gradually slows.

The coda’s look back while still moving forward, sums up the music to a T with a conclusion that perfectly reinforces the aura of positivity that is as welcome as spring  rain.