Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 18 June 2010

Reger: Clarinet Sonatas Op.49, Florent Héau, Patrick Zygmanowski

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Sonata Op. 49 No.1 in Ab Major for Clarinet and Piano [19:00]
Sonata Op. 49 No.2 in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Piano [18:12]
Albumblatt [1:29]

Florent Héau - clarinet
Patrick Zygmanowski – piano
Rec. at l’Eglise de Bon Secours PARIS XI 1-4 July 2002 DDD

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The clarinet sonatas of Brahms were the catalyst for Reger’s first forays into the genre. His Op.49 pair was written as a direct response to his first hearing Brahms’ Op. 120. They were written fast, and were completed within just a few days of this first acquaintance with their model. The Brahms connection is a useful starting point for performers and listeners alike when coming to this music. Reger’s textures are more dense and his modulations more daring, but Brahms’ disciplined approach to melodic phrasing and chordal voicing are at the heart of Reger’s aesthetic.

Florent Héau and Patrick Zygmanowski regularly fall back on Brahmsian performance practice in their performance of the Op. 49 sonatas, and no more so than in the opening movement of the second. The density of Reger’s accompaniments are here countered by a confident and strident clarinet sound, firmly intoning the melodic line to imbue the music with a sense of inevitability that is pure Brahms.

The speed at which these works were written was not unusual for Reger, and many performers of his chamber music have taken this as a license to play his music in a throwaway, slightly dismissive style, concentrating, like the composer himself, on the bigger picture rather than the numerous details. One occasional consequence is a lack of rubato or shaping of phrases. Héau and Zygmanowski are clearly aware of this danger, and their approach to phrasing is scrupulous. They take both sonatas at a relatively fast pace, but regularly hold back on the tempo to shape phrases and sections. Most of this rubato, it must be said, is not mentioned in the score, and is often taking to extremes. However, the flow of the music is never interrupted; Reger’s bigger picture is always given the foreground, and the performers know just how far they can stretch their indulgences.

What is less forgivable is the lack of dynamic variety, especially given the precision with which Reger notates his dynamics. The rubato shaping of phrases in the recording substitutes Reger’s similarly painstaking approach to do the same thing with dynamics. Admittedly, the score often calls for impractical and sudden dynamic changes within fast and complex passages, but the performers seem to treat the notated dynamics as optional. Perhaps we are all better off without the fff clarinet passages in the top register, but the pp entries and phrase endings below the stave lose their magic when played mf.

The recording was made in a church acoustic, which suits the clarinet better than the piano. Héau has a distinctive, woody sound, which benefits from the roundness of tone afforded by the warm resonance. The piano, by contrast, lacks definition in this environment, and the susceptibility of Reger’s complex textures to congestion and muddying regularly becomes apparent. The acoustic also has the effect of amplifying the upper bass register, which also works to the detriment of Reger’s dense chord voicing.

But for all this, the overall impression is of the performers coming to this relatively unusual repertoire as an opportunity rather than as a problem to solve. Their daring rubato speaks of a confident approach to the interpretation of the music, an interpretation that that excels in logic and coherency. The sense of energy and momentum they bring to each movement seems intended to dispel reservations that audiences may have about the density of Reger’s textures. It will probably work, but they would win more converts to Reger’s cause with a little more attention to the details of his scores. 

Gavin Dixon 2010

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