"All those interested in early 20th century wind music will want this."
"This enterprising recording celebrates French composers’ writing for the clarinet and piano. It is particularly interesting as it mixes music by Les Six composers with a piece by Saint-Saëns. He embraced romanticism yet always sought innovation, even in his late works. In 1871, he founded the Société Nationale de Musique to promote French music. He told Romain Rolland in 1910: “In my early days I was called a revolutionary – in my old age I can only be an ancestor.” Regrettably, he rejected the adventurist modernism of Groupe des Six; his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano looks back emphatically to Schumann and Brahms.
In the opening Allegretto of the Saint-Saëns sonata, there is a nice warm balance. Pires fluently and eloquently portrays the opening charming melody. He allows the bewitchingly romantic theme full expression alongside Akimoto’s bright keyboard notes. The ‘ringing’ clarinet in the Lento matches the elegiacally graceful piano chords. In the final Molto allegro, it seems as if summer has returned after a sudden downpour. There is beautiful wind playing, exuberant and joyful. A reprise of the lovely first idea culminates with sparkling brilliance and no little charm. Jean Gallois commented on this piece: “a masterpiece of impishness, elegance and lyricism”.
The opening piano chords of Debussy’s piece immediately bring a different mood. It is mysterious and colourful, with a wonderfully lyrical idea. Pires plays with virtuosity and with magnificent phrasing in introducing a fresh enticing idea; there may be hints of Debussy’s piano pieces, almost parodied on clarinet leading to an elusive harmony. Pires displays intonations of bird-like singing in the high notes. The two young virtuosi develop ever quicker tempi before rising to a splendid climax.
Honegger’s modernist piece has a lean structure, with a rather bland melody. Akimoto introduces a motoric catchy idea, and the slow movement is suitably dark and mournful. The finale is highlighted by hammering piano ostinatos against the clarinet with its glissandos. This creates a jazzy element before the concluding bright, upbeat rhythms.
Milhaud’s piece exemplifies brusque modernism, again with ostinato piano chords beside the bright clarinet. The raw brashness is followed by quiet passages and ferocious piano playing alongside quiet introspective song-like intonations on the clarinet, before rising upbeat and cheerfully, yet culminating rumbustiously and earthily.
In Poulenc’s Sonata, I was struck by the arrestingly bright colourful theme. It becomes rhythmically intriguing against the engaging modernist piano ideas. This is combined with an especially momentous idea on piano (perhaps hinting at a kinship with Shostakovich), and a reticent beautiful theme on clarinet, before reprising the opening first idea. The piece ends in a humorously jazzy manner, and sparkles with charm.
The last piece on this fascinating disc, Françaix’s Theme and Variations, offers a different mood: explicitly happy, laid-back and easy listening. I liked Pires’s range of richly colourful wind playing. Here it sounds equally tentative and beautifully moody in embracing atmospherically chirpy, charming expression. There is no little brilliance in Akimoto’s virtuosity in the closing pages of this excellent programme.
The disc makes one look forward to hearing more from this fine pair of musicians. The recording is outstanding. Producer Joachim Müller achieved the highest technical standards; he also was responsible for mixing and mastering.
All those interested in early 20th century wind music will want this."