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

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Official release: 16 April 2021

  • Artist(s): Michele Carulli, Serena Chillemi
  • Composer(s): Bohuslav Martinů, Camille Saint-Säens, 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
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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

Artist(s)

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.

Composer(s)

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.

His studies in Prague were a desultory record of poor attendance and suspension; after the near complete failure of his studies at the conservatory, a year (1909–10) in its organ department resulted in expulsion for ‘incorrigible negligence’. More positively, he found Prague’s cultural life captivating, found a firm and later influential friend in the violinist Stanislav Novák and was profoundly stirred by the Prague première (in German) of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1908). In order to acquire a professional qualification, Martinů took the state teaching examination, failing in 1911 but passing the next year. Although he had begun to compose Tři jezdci (‘The Three Riders’) for string quartet as early as 1900, his first major outpouring of works came in 1910, when he wrote, along with piano music and some 14 songs, Smrt Tintagilova (‘La mort de Tintagiles’) and Anděl smrti (‘The Angel of Death’) for orchestra.

During the First World War Martinů lived with his family in Polička and eluded conscription by a combination of simulated and real ill-health while sustaining himself by teaching the violin. These years allowed him to concentrate on composition, resulting in formative works such as the orchestral Nocturne and Koleda (‘Carol’) and culminating in the nationalist Česká rapsódie, of which the second performance on 24 January 1919, in the presence of President Masaryk, did much for his reputation in Prague. After 1913 he often deputized as a second violinist with the Czech Philharmonic; in the spring of 1919 he travelled with the orchstra on a tour which included Geneva, London and Paris, and between 1920 and 1923 he became a full member. He produced important works in this period, including the ballets Istar and Kdo je na světě nejmocnější (‘Who is the Most Powerful in the World?’), and studied briefly in Suk’s composition class at the Prague Conservatory.

Having been much attracted by Paris, Martinů, with the aid of a small scholarship from the ministry of education, returned there in October 1923 to study with Roussel. Although he often visited Prague and took frequent summer holidays in Polička, Martinů never again lived in Czechoslovakia. In Paris his range of musical experiences vastly increased: apart from lessons with Roussel he heard the music of Stravinsky and Les Six and jazz. Impressed by La bagarre, Koussevitzky took an interest in Martinů and in 1927 gave its hugely successful première in Boston with the Boston SO. Late in 1926 Martinů began to live with Charlotte Quennehen, whose activities as a dressmaker did much to alleviate his near poverty. Martinů became increasingly prolific towards the end of the 1920s, completing his first opera, Voják a tanečnice (‘The Soldier and the Dancer’), much chamber music, inlcuding his important Second String Quartet and a number of jazz-inspired works including the orchestral Le jazz, the chamber Jazz Suite and the operas Les larmes du couteau and Les trois souhaits.

By the 1930s many aspects of Martinů’s style were established and his reputation was growing. His works were given, though not very frequently, in Prague and Brno; performances included the premières of the Second Piano Concerto (1935) and the opera Julietta (1938), both conducted by Václav Talich. Other important premières included those of the First Cello Concerto in Berlin (1931), the Concerto for string quartet and orchestra under Malcolm Sargent in London (1932) followed rapidly in Boston by Koussevitzky, and the orchestral Inventions at the ISCM Festival during the 1934 Venice Biennale. While the compositions of the 1930s reveal a penchant for Baroque forms and procedures, Martinů was also showing an interest in the folk music and culture of Czechoslovakia in such works as the opera-ballet Špalíček (‘The Chap-Book’), the Staročeská říkadla (‘Old Czech Nursery Rhymes’) and Kytice (‘Garland’).

Despite his mother’s lack of enthusiasm for Charlotte, Martinů married her in 1931. During preparations for the première of Julietta in 1937, Martinů met the promising young composer and conductor, Vítězslava Kaprálová. Encouraging her to come to work with him in Paris in the autumn of 1937, he began an affair which developed strongly over the next year. In June 1938 he went with her to London where she conducted her Vojenská sinfonie (‘Military Symphony’). Later that summer Martinů spent his last holiday in Czechoslovakia and in September went to Schönenberg in Switzerland, where he completed the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani for Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra.

With the completion of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Martinů, named as cultural attaché by the Czechoslovak opposition, assisted the large number of Czech artists coming to Paris as refugees. Kaprálová began an affair with the writer Jiří Mucha and married him two months before her death from tuberculosis in 1940. Too old for military service at the start of the war, Martinů composed the nationally-coloured Polní mše (‘Field Mass’), dedicated to the Free Czechoslovak Army Band. His personal situation worsened when his music was blacklisted by the Nazis in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and as the Germans approached Paris in the spring of 1940 he fled with Charlotte to the south of France, provisionally settling in Aix-en-Provence at the beginning of September. In the last three months of the year he continued to compose, including the Sinfonietta giocosa for piano and small orchestra. Early in 1941 they went via Marseilles to Lisbon seeking passage to the United States, eventually leaving Portugal on the SS Exeter on 21 March.

Although Martinů spent a considerable time in or near New York during the war years, in the summers he would leave the city. His excursions included stays at Middlebury (Vermont), Darien and Ridgefield (Connecticut) and Cape Cod and South Orleans (Massachusetts) as well as composition teaching at Tanglewood in 1942. Depression and homesickness compounded by a poor knowledge of English made for a difficult start in America, but Martinů soon began composing again. Koussevitzky provided an important stimulus with a commission for an orchestral work, resulting in Martinů’s first symphony (1942). This was followed in yearly succession by four more, the last of which was dedicated to the Czech Philharmonic and first performed under Kubelík at the first Prague Spring Festival in 1947.

At the end of the war in Europe, Martinů accepted the offer of a composition professorship at the newly-founded Prague Conservatory, but remained resident in America for the next seven years. In part this lack of a return to Europe was explained by a serious fall Martinů incurred while teaching at Tanglewood in the summer of 1946. Recovery was slow and he suffered from tinnitus, headaches and depression for a number of years. His indecisiveness about taking up his post in Prague was reinforced by the loss of his close friend Stanislav Novák, the deteriorating political situation in Czechoslovakia and the pursuit of an affair with the young composer Roe Barstow. Composition, not least the important Toccata e due canzoni, was also severely disrupted by the accident and it was only by 1948 that Martinů was producing work again in quantity. After spending the summer of 1948 in France and Switzerland, Martinů returned to New York to take up teaching appointments at Princeton and the Mannes School of Music. Over the next three years he composed steadily including the Sinfonia Concertante (1949) and a second Piano Trio (1950); in 1952 he completed two operas for television, What Men Live By and The Marriage. He also began work on his Sixth Symphony (Fantaisies symphoniques) which he completed in 1953.

With the help of a Guggenheim scholarship Martinů returned to Europe in May 1953, living at first in Paris then in September moving to Nice where he spent much of the next two years. This contented phase resulted in major compositions such as the opera Mirandolina, the oratorio Gilgameš and, inspired by an encounter with the artist’s work during a summer trip to Italy in 1954, Les fresques de Piero della Francesca. A return to New York in October 1955, though marked by considerable productivity, including a sonata for viola, sonatinas for clarinet and trumpet and the completion of the Fourth Piano Concerto, depressed Martinů and in May 1956 he returned to Europe and a teaching post at the American Academy of Music in Rome, which he held until the summer of 1957.

While staying in New York, Martinů began work on the greatest project of his final years, the opera The Greek Passion based on Christ Recrucified by the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, whom he had met in Antibes in 1954. Another important strand in his last years was a nostalgic interest in his native Polička, and this resulted in four remarkably beautiful and dramatically complex cantatas setting folk-inspired verse by Miloslav Bureš. Martinů moved to Switzerland in November 1957 and was based there until his death. Towards the end of 1958 he became ill with stomach problems and his health deteriorated over the next year. Despite illness, this final year was richly productive: Martinů completed The Greek Passion, composed the second nonet, the cantata Mikeš z hor (‘Mikeš from the Mountains’), Madrigaly (‘Part-Song Book’), the cantata The Prophecy of Isaiah and much chamber music. On 8 August 1959 he entered the hospital at Liestal suffering from stomach cancer and died there on 28 August. In 1979 his body was reinterred in the family grave in Polička.

On his own admission, Martinů’s boyhood in the tower affected him in later life. Compositionally, he stated that he strove to embody in his work the space constantly before his eyes as a child; as a man, the isolation may well have contributed to the elusive quality of his personality and a tendency to disorientation when first encountering new places. This disorientation and the narrow provincialism of his background undoubtedly compounded his inability to handle the academic side of life in Prague; on the other hand, he soon adapted to metropolitan cultural life in both Prague and Paris. The monolithic architecture and hectic pace of New York proved far less congenial and resulted in bouts of depression increased by worries about his home, first under the Nazis and then under the Communists, a psychological state certainly exacerbated by his accident. He could sometimes appear withdrawn and abstracted in later years. His relationship with Charlotte, despite her loyalty at crucial stages, was fragmented by his infidelity, but although they were not soul-mates, Martinů retained a sentimental affection for her and they remained man and wife until his death. Compulsive aspects of his personality surfaced in his chain-smoking, voracious reading and a frequently workaholic approach to composition. As a teacher he was mercurial and unmethodical, but although his manner with students reflected his own lack of ease with academic discipline, his ability to maximize the potential he saw in embryonic work was highly valued.

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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