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American Music for Clarinet and Piano
John Novacek: Four Rags for Two Jons
Paquito D'Rivera: The Cape Cod Files
Leonard Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Geroge Gershwin, arr. James Cohn: Three Preludes; I Got Rhythm
Jon Manasse, clarinet; Jon Nakamatsu, piano
Review By Joe Milicia


  The "two Jons" (clarinet-piano duo Manasse and Nakamatsu) offer a very pleasing recital of American music here, featuring both "classics" (Gershwin and Bernstein) and a pair of premieres written especially for Novacek and D'Rivera. The music leans toward the popular in style (least so the Bernstein, curiously enough) and provides plenty of opportunities for virtuosity that are clearly relished by our performers.

John Novacek is a concert pianist as well as composer and well-known arranger; his Four Rags for Two Jons (2006) are in fact arrangements of some of his own neo-ragtime pieces. The first, "Schenectady," is jaunty in rhythm: it starts out in a traditional Scott Joplin vein but quickly becomes wildly tricky in rhythm even as the clarinet part keeps a certain laid-back cool, with frequent glides from one note to the next that become more extravagant leaps near the end. The "4th Street Drag" is much slower and mellower; the title, according to John Henken's booklet notes, alludes to the music's parallel fourths. Both Manasse and Nakamatsu are wonderfully flexible in tempo throughout the piece, which takes some surprising directions along its sauntering path. "Recuperation" is brisk, and the concluding "Full Stride Ahead," with its abrupt pauses and changes of tempo, is more like a deconstruction of a rag. The whole suite is great fun, especially with such spectacular performances, though I could have done without the brief moments of finger-snapping, cork-popping and a shout of "Hot dog!"

Pasquito D'Rivera is a Cuban-born clarinetist and composer; the title The Cape Cod Files (2009) alludes to the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, where the two Jons are co-directors. Each of the four movements of this 23-minute suite or sonata is titled after a musician or instrument, beginning with "Benny @ 100", a salute to Benny Goodman's hundredth anniversary, features a slow, rhapsodic opening followed by a boogie-woogie section. "Bandoneón" is meant to invoke the Argentine tango accordion (Henken hears Piazzolla mixed with "Chopin/jazz fusion"). "Lecuonerías" is unmentioned by Henken, but I assume the title alludes to Cuban pop-composer Ernesto Lecuona ("Malagueña"); it's a kind of fantasia for clarinet unaccompanied. Finally, "Chiquita Blues" is an homage to a legendary Cuban vaudeville singer. It alternates passages in a jazzy American style with more Latin-Cuban flourishes.

Leonard Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata (1942) was his first published composition. The first of its two movements is moderate in tempo and very indebted to the style of Paul Hindemith; the second begins very slowly, with the distinctive melancholy sweetness to be heard in later Bernstein works, followed by a syncopated fast section, a second slow section displaying the clarinet's high register, and briefly back to the fast section. It is fascinating to compare the Jons' performance with one by Stanley Drucker and Kazuko Hayami on an out-of-print Cala CD. Outside of differences in tone (I confess to favoring Drucker's less mellow but still sweet sound), Drucker and Hayami take the first movement considerably faster, with steady, forward-moving urgency, while Manasse and Nakamatsu are more rhapsodic, almost improvisatory, with Nakamatsu bringing out an ostinato accompaniment early in the movement much more dramatically. In the second movement the differences of interpretation are not so striking overall, though there countless moments of different emotional emphasis on a note or phrase. Both are fine performances.

Gershwin's Three Piano Preludes (1926) exist in innumerable arrangements — Zamfir doubtless has a panpipes version out there somewhere. James Cohn's 1987 arrangement for clarinet and piano is highly satisfying, played with panache by the Jons. Maybe the Second Prelude is a little too self-consciously slow and "soft" (as in soft-focus glamour photo, rather than volume), but the First and Third are quite brilliant. As an encore we are given Cohn's 1994 enjoyably flashy arrangement of "I Got Rhythm."

The sound that Harmonia Mundi provides is as impeccable as the performances, with the piano balanced more as a partner compared to the older Cala recording where the keyboard is recessed behind Stanley Drucker. I won't say that the Jons are uncannily present, but the recording is fine enough for Manasse's suave tone to come across clearly and for Nakamatsu's flourishes to provide an exciting jolt.





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