Les Affinités: Sonatas and Fantasias for Clarinet and Piano at the Dawn of the 20th Century


Official release: 16 April 2021

  • Artist(s): Michele Carulli, Serena Chillemi
  • Composer(s): Bohuslav Martinů, Camille Saint-Saëns, Francis Poulenc, Niels W. Gade
  • EAN Code: 7.46160912288
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Chamber
  • Instrumentation: Clarinet, Piano
  • Period: Modern
  • Publication year: 2021
SKU: C00398 Category:

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The first masterpieces which saw the clarinet as their protagonist date back to the classical era (one is immediately reminded of Mozart’s Quintet and Concerto). Mozart was perhaps the first among the greatest composers to understand the instrument’s potential in the complementary fields of brilliant transparency and shadowy elegy. Mozart successfully managed to exploit the clarinet’s bubbling irony and agility, and its expressive variety; his heritage was developed in the early nineteenth century, particularly by Carl Maria von Weber. Similar to Mozart, Weber had a humorous and sparkling vein, but also a penchant for mysterious and enchanting sounds: it comes as no surprise that the clarinet was one of his favourite instruments, given the complementary strengths of this marvellous woodwind instrument.
Later Romantic composers favoured the symbolic value of the clarinet as an evocation of otherworldly magic, of long-forgotten poetry, of a mythical past exuding fascination and wonder. Frequently, the lighter and sunnier face of the clarinet was neglected by the Romantic masters; only in the twentieth century did it come to the fore once more, and particularly thanks to the Neoclassical stream which revived what Mozart had suggested and perhaps left unsaid.
This Da Vinci Classics album comprises four iconic works for clarinet and piano duet. Among them, one (Gade’s Fantasiestücke op. 43) is a typical representative of the Romantic idea of the clarinet, whereas the other three, each in its own fashion, embody the more modern approach of the French school and its interest in a reinterpretation of the classical forms and styles.
Niels Wilhelm Gade, a Dane, was one of the founders of the Scandinavian musical tradition; his influence was fundamental for later composers such as Grieg and Sibelius. He befriended Robert Schumann, who admitted him in the spiritual circle of the Davidsbündler, the League of David’s Companions: an elect group of musicians and artists who shared Schumann’s contempt for the “Philistines”, the bigots of music, and who promoted innovation and creativity in contemporaneous works. Even though Schumann nourished an undeniable admiration for Mozart, he could not admit what he felt as the “Philistines’” anachronistic reverence for musical forms and formulas of the (Classical) past. His concept of Romantic art was frequently dominated by contrasting emotions and feelings, by the needs of musical story-telling, by the sudden outburst of his musical characters, and by the unpredictable inspiration of “fantasy”. Schumann wrote several sets of Fantasiestücke, of “fantastic (or fantasy) pieces”, in which the capricious moods of the Romantic soul are fancifully juxtaposed to each other. It should be pointed out, however, that Schumann’s “caprices” and “fantasies” were never formless or shapeless: he was too skilled and too cultivated a musician for deluding himself with the idea that inspiration was something savage and wild to which a composer should blindly obey. Thus, even though his ideals were rather far from those of the Classicism, undeniably he had learnt his compositional art by studying precisely those models.
Certainly, however, Schumann’s idea of Fantasiestücke fascinated his friend Gade (to whom a piece based on the notes G-A-D-E is dedicated within Schumann’s Album for the Young); in particular, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke op. 73 for clarinet and piano are the immediate ancestors of Gade’s op. 43. In 1864, Gade composed his own set of “fantasy pieces”, known today by their Danish title of Fantasistykker, choosing the clarinet and piano duo as the ensemble which could evoke the fantastic worlds of his creative vision. In turn, Gade’s pieces would inspire some of his students, including Carl Nielsen and August Winding, who wrote their own pieces by the same title.
Gade’s work was probably stimulated by his acquaintance with a clarinetist whose first name was – ironically or prophetically – “Mozart” (Mozart Petersen), a member of the Royal Orchestra of Copenhagen. The pieces were premiered in the city of Leipzig where Schumann had lived. They comprise contrasting moments and movements, some of which embody the typical late-Romantic language and ideals (with unforgettable tunes, lyrical expression and refined harmonies). The most fascinating piece of the cycle, however, is probably the Ballade (the only movement provided with a title). Here, as happens in many works by Schumann, the instruments are called to recount a tale of sounds. There is probably no hidden programme behind this musical narrative; however, in and through the purely musical language of melody, harmony and rhythm, the composer manages to evoke a whole world in the listener’s imagination. A world clearly reminiscent of Nordic, mysterious and enchanted atmospheres, veined with a nuance of Scandinavian folklore and fairy-tales.
A very different atmosphere is the one found in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Clarinet Sonata. Throughout his long life, Saint-Saëns had championed a musical style which favoured clarity, transparency, elegance and humour over the bombastic excesses of some of his contemporaries. His most pungent detractors charged him with academicism and reactionary attitudes; in fact, he was anticipating some of the most important aesthetic movements of the twentieth century, and particularly the modern rediscovery of Classicism and of its elegance, irony, detachment and balance.
This Sonata is one of the very last among the composer’s finished works. Saint-Saëns was passionate about chamber music, and wrote a very high number of beautiful works for various chamber music ensembles. In 1921, possibly precognizant of his impending death, the composer wrote to his friend Jean Chantavoine: “At the moment I am concentrating my last reserves on giving rarely considered instruments the chance to be heard. I have just written an Oboe Sonata in three movements which is still unpublished. The clarinet, English horn and bassoon are to follow – I want to begin them soon”. Saint-Saëns, therefore, consciously embarked in this exciting project, in spite of his age and declining health; he aimed at actively contributing to the solo and chamber music repertoire of instruments whose potential was acknowledged, but whose libraries contained but few books. Of the planned works, the English horn Sonata was regrettably not accomplished. The compositional process of the other works was speedy and successful; the private rehearsals where Saint-Saëns aimed at testing the suitability of his writing to the idiomatic properties of each instrument went “like clockwork”, in the composer’s words. Even though he might have had doubts as to the efficaciousness of some of his musical solutions, the almost inexistent corrections on his manuscript scores demonstrate that the performers were entirely satisfied with the pieces and their scoring. Saint-Saëns died in December 1921, and was therefore unable to hear the public premieres of his pieces; the Clarinet Sonata was dedicated to Auguste Périer, a Conservatory professor and a great virtuoso of his instrument. The Sonata’s four movements are very balanced, and the piano beautifully interacts with its partner; none of them is in the Sonata form, and the ideal model is that of the Baroque Suite rather than of the Classical Sonata proper (the second movement is reminiscent of a Baroque Gavotte). The piece overflows with grace, irony, and a surprising freshness which reveals the sparkling inspiration of the octogenarian composer.
Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonatina belongs in turn to the composer’s last years (he was 66 by the time he wrote it). A Czech musician who had had a very cosmopolitan existence, he had spent some years in Paris studying with Albert Roussel, and befriended the Six (including Francis Poulenc), whose aesthetical ideals he appreciated. His Clarinet Sonatina is clearly shaped according to Neoclassical principles, although its luxuriant melodies reveal Martinu’s rootedness in the musical tradition of his country. Its three movements, seamlessly connected, offer a wide range of stimuli to the players, ranging from rhythmic liveliness and complexity to expressive moments and to the last movement’s dazzling brilliancy and refined counterpoint, along with a fascinating compositional structure which is imbued with cross-references among the movements.
Similar to Saint-Saëns’ Sonata, also that by Poulenc was written in the very last months of his life; in turn, it also belonged in a larger project of Sonatas for woodwind instruments, including one for the flute and one for the oboe. It had been commissioned by legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman (who premiered it with Leonard Bernstein after the composer’s death). The work displays influences from other Neoclassical composers, including Sergei Prokofev; here too we find passionate and touching moments, elegiac passages and a pronounced lyricism. The Finale, however, is yet another opportunity to appreciate the clarinet’s potential for virtuosity and enthralling vivacity, in a whirlwind of brilliancy and excitement.
Together, these works embody the full palette of the clarinet’s resources in terms of technique and musicianship; they also offer a panorama on how the clarinet related to its own history and to the history of music. From Gade’s references to Schumann, to the retrospective gazes of the Neoclassical composers, the clarinet perhaps expresses a deep nostalgia, which is magnificently revealed by its beautiful tone.

Album notes by Chiara Bertoglio


Michele Carulli: He completed his training as clarinettist in his native Apulia. He was awarded the honorary diploma by the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. When he was 19, he was recommended by Claudio Abbado for the position of solo clarinettist in the Scala Orchestra in Milan. Carulli won numerous international prizes, including Premio Bucchi, Premio Citta di Ancona, and Premio Viotti di Vercelli.
This resulted in him performing as guest soloist with renowned orchestras in Italy and elsewhere.
Afterwards, Carulli began to study musical composition and orchestral conduction at the Conservatory in Milan. He followed his conducting debut in Italy with appearances in Austria, Hungary, and the United States. He was one of the finalists in the 1991 International Conductors Competition in Berlin. He was invited in1992 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to participate in the seminars at Tanglewood with Seiji Ozawa.
Meanwhile he was also solo clarinettist in the RAI Symphonic Orchestra In Turin and he went on tours all over the world. He recorded the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the European Community Chamber Orchestra.
Carulli was Professor for Clarinet at the Conservatory in Milan until his move to Germany in 1997.
Carulli was, from 1994, personal assistant to Giuseppe Sinopoli. He worked on major productions at the Scala, the Semper Oper in Dresden, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and the Accademia Musicale in Santa Cecilia.
He was assistant to Giuseppe Sinopoli in the summer of 2000 for the new production of Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth directed by Jürgen Flimm.
Among the orchestras which Carulli has conducted are the Rundfunkorchestas of München, Frankfurt and Saarbrücken, the Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and many others. He has also conducted operas at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the Nationaltheater in Weimar, the New National Theatre in Tokyo and many others. Carulli from 2002 till 2005 was the principal Kapellmeister and deputy music director at the Staatstheater in Saarbrücken and produced many well-received operas.
Afterwards, from 2005 to 2013, was general music director of the Landesbühne of Saxony in Dresden-Radebeul. His productions of operas and symphony concerts earned high praise. A CD box with all six piano concertos of Gian Francesco Malipiero, performed by Carulli with the pianist Sandro Bartoli and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, has been produced in 2007 by CPO, and won the Diapason d’Or. A recording with the Orchestra of the Landesbühne Sachsen of Ottorino Respighi’s Toccata and Piano Concerto was published in 2010 by the label Brilliant Classics. Michele Carulli in recent years has, in addition to orchestral conduction, been active as clarinettist. He performs solo, and chamber music, and duets with the pianist Serena Chillemi.

Serena Chillemi: Born in Catania. She showed a great interest in music from a very young age and began studying piano with Alessandra Toscano. In 2003, she graduated from the Antonio Scontrino Conservatory in Trapani. She attended several master classes both in Italy and abroad, conducted by masters such as Michele Campanella, Monica Leone, Oliver Kern and Wan-Ing Oei-Ong. In 2004, she moved to Germany, where she attended the "Richard Strauss" Conservatory in Munich, joining the class led by Thomas Böckheler. During that period, she also undertook further study in other important areas of music, including choral direction, composition and harmony. In 2008, she obtained excellent results both in the Künstlerisches and in the Pädagogisches Diplom (advanced piano studies and a teaching specialisation), presenting a thesis on contemporary music in Sicily. She has always had a busy concert schedule, performing both as a soloist and in chamber ensembles. She has achieved considerable recognition in many Italian and international piano competitions. Serena Chillemi has performed as a soloist at important European concert venues, in music festivals and events, including: the "Marcello Theatre" and "Villa di Torlonia" in Rome, the "Kleiner Konzertsaal im Gasteig" and "Schloß Nymphenburg" in Munich, the "Naviglio Piccolo" in Milan, the "Auditorium della RAI" in Palermo, and the "Teatro Massimo" and "Sala Museion" in Catania. Additionally, her interest in contemporary music has led her to develop some interesting collaborations with various musicians, including the composers Maria Grazia Giusti-Rago and Dorothea Hofmann, whom she has executed the first performances of several compositions for. In 2012, the publication of her first CD, under the title, “Solo Piano” marked a significant milestone in her artistic career. This album, containing pieces from the romantic European repertoire, and published by the German label, Auris Aurea, has met with unanimous approval. Serena is currently engaged in the production of several classical and contemporary music projects in Munich and Italy, such as "L'Opera Semplice" with the soprano Maria Anelli and "Minimal Duo" with the pianist Tommaso Farinetti. She is also the Artistic director of the "Armonia Italiana" music association, which promotes Classical Italian repertoire in Germany through concerts and events. While progressing her career as a performer, Serena never abandoned her passion for teaching and in 2019 founded the "Klavier Studio" Piano Academy with Tommaso Farinetti.


Bohuslav Martinů: Martinů was born in the small market town of Polička just on the Bohemian side of the Bohemian-Moravian border. Until 1902, when they moved to a house in the centre of the town, his family lived at the top of the church tower, where his father combined his cobbler’s trade with fire-watching and ringing bells for services. Martinů started school in 1897 followed by violin lessons twice a week. He developed fast as a violinist, leading the Polička string quartet and in 1905 giving his first performance as a soloist. Another successful recital the next year encouraged high hopes of a career as a virtuoso leading to the key event of his early life: the local community raised funds to send him to the Prague Conservatory, the entrance exam for which he passed in September 1906.

Camille Saint-Säens: (b Paris, 9 Oct 1835; d Algiers, 16 Dec 1921). French composer, pianist, organist and writer. Like Mozart, to whom he was often compared, he was a brilliant craftsman, versatile and prolific, who contributed to every genre of French music. He was one of the leaders of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.

Francis Poulenc: (b Paris, 7 Jan 1899; d Paris, 30 Jan 1963). French composer and pianist. During the first half of his career the simplicity and directness of his writing led many critics away from thinking of him as a serious composer. Gradually, since World War II, it has become clear that the absence from his music of linguistic complexity in no way argues a corresponding absence of feeling or technique; and that while, in the field of French religious music, he disputes supremacy with Messiaen, in that of the mélodie he is the most distinguished composer since the death of Fauré.

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