Friday, July 10, 2015

Reginald Kell : Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo

[ This review was originally published before The Jazz Clarinet, at a very different point in my playing careerI'd intended to go back and edit it, emphasizing Stravinsky's comment to Charles Russo that the pieces were 'like jazz', but found that editing would almost entail a complete rewrite, and while some of my own opinions have evolved regarding this recording since 2012, this 'take' strikes me as worth keeping around. Stravinsky can be said to have been of considerable importance to jazz history, having influenced the likes of Artie Shaw and, perhaps most importantly, Charlie Parker. Moreover, having been open to jazz influences himself, he played a major role in drawing serious attention to jazz as art music. Likewise Kell is of importance to jazz clarinet performance history, for his direct influence on Goodman and tangential influence on many of the rest of us. As such, this recording in particular ought to be of interest to jazz clarinetists who might not otherwise bother with interpretive controversies within classical music performance.    --ES, July 2015  

[Links have been added to the text, so the reader can check out the recording itself --ES]

The Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, written by Igor Stravinsky in 1919 during his Swiss exile, mark an important transition from the composer's early 'Russian' style to his Neo-Classic phase, which was to last through the early 1950s. This intersection is crucial to our understanding of the pieces, for just as the general public associates Stravinsky almost solely with his early Russian ballets (Firebird, Petruska, and The Rite of Spring), so musicians in the West tend to interpret Stravinsky almost solely through the writings and attitudes documented in his Neo-classic phase. Moreover, following larger pieces such as L'histoire du Soldat and Ragtime (both from 1918), these pieces would seem to be placed more towards the Neo-Classic. But timelines can be deceiving, and more than once the sensitive artist will note a backward glance in these pieces. Because of this, they function as a hinge between Stravinsky's most conflicting periods--a unique point of transition.

The Pieces are extremely difficult and paradoxical in every way. Short in duration, they seem at times epic in utterance. Even when restrained in execution, they yield intense emotions--like stone sculptures that seem to leap and writhe. There is something Gothic about them, especially the second movement, with its spires and insistent questions, posed in such demanding fashion that I believe they were not answered fully until the Mass setting of 1948.

There are few miniature masterpieces written for solo winds. Perhaps only Debussy's Syrinx for flute and these Stravinsky pieces really qualify. The importance and beauty, mysteriousness and genius of the Debussy cannot be denied, but of the two, the Stravinsky is the more demanding psychologically, stylistically, and spiritually.

Stravinsky was an orchestrator with very few peers in the history of music. A student of Rimsky-Korsakov, whose revision of Berlioz's Orchestration treatise became standard for generations, he had a keen sense of instrumental personality and color. There is something poignant when we consider Berlioz's observation of the clarinet ("the instrument of heroic love") being placed in such solitary confinement and made to ask such existential questions.

All of this is necessary backdrop if we are to fully analyze Reginald Kell's (or anyone else's) reading of the Pieces. Kell's is perhaps the most controversial in his catalog of recordings, for here his use of rubato, and the liberties he takes with tempi and dynamics, are a central and controversial feature.

Before continuing, a word about my personal credentials for discussing the pieces: It's a habit among clarinetists to claim right of interpretation based upon proximity to the composer. I find this deeply suspect, and more a name-dropping game than anything else, but it is nonetheless coin of the realm in many discussions. For what it's worth, my lineage is rather strong on these pieces. I studied them intensely with Charles Russo, who played under Stravinsky and discussed the pieces in depth with him. In their conversation, and in my subsequent lessons, no mention was made at all about the "Song of the Volga Boatmen" being a basis for the first piece (which I consider an unhelpful starting point), nor was strict Neo-Classic era performance practice encouraged or suggested. Russo was quite clear to me that Stravinsky intended these pieces as a stylistic bridge between the Rite of Spring and his later work; that there was considerable flexibility to them, though the composer was serious about the parameters outlined in the score. The notion that these should be performed "objectively" is therefore inaccurate. With these things in mind, we can turn more productively to Reginald Kell's interpretation.

Reginal Kell * Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (1919) * Igor Stravinsky


From the outset of the first piece, Kell's reading seems to disregard tempo and dynamic marking. The opening piece is marked quarter note=52,  sempre p[iano] e molto tranquillo. The only aspect of this direction actually followed is "molto tranquillo". In terms of tempo, he is generally slower, but even this is obscured by a rubato which verges on disregard for meter. I don't sense that it was a disregard, however, as Kell appears to have been quite careful to outline the various rhythms in relation to the meter, and the effect is actually a coherent and engaging framing of the entire first piece.

Certain phrasing details, such as the shape and direction of measure 16, make more sense in Kell's context than most interpretations. And as blatantly as he seems to have disregarded the initial dynamic and tempo marking, he is meticulous in indicating such details as the sixteenth rest in measure 9, or the staccato at the end of the slur in measure 21. I say 'indicate' because he doesn't always do these things in orthodox manner, but sometimes through implication. These minute details are important, because they suggest a mind engaged with the material in a way that is by no means obvious at first.

Kell's sound is very expressive and rich in the piece, which stands in contrast to most performances--admittedly because most performances obey the dynamic marking at the beginning. And here he lays bare a central problem: how does one play molto tranquillo, and express what is seemingly the richness of the low clarinet without sounding too timid and fluffy (which the execution of the p often ends up doing to performers). I believe his choice to play at just below mf is the answer--and to compensate for this, he slows the tempo (which adds a sense of tranquillo that would have been trampled without).


Kell's second piece is even more problematic than the first, largely because of wrong notes. Either he was using an edition with many mistakes, or this was carelessly sloppy, which is strange because once again it seems quite deliberate and balanced. Once again, the tempo is slower than indicated, and once again Kell disregards performance instructions (most notably when he elongates grouping of two sixteenths, when all are supposed to be played equally). It's impossible to refute those who would dismiss this as a butchering of the piece: they are certainly within their rights to insist that a studio recording of a piece this important be played with the correct notes at least.

Having said this, and somewhat shocked at myself, I find this reading to be deeply compelling on a couple of levels. First, I think his rubato, which can only be called willful, serves a greater purpose of outlining Stravinsky's architecture. I said earlier that this piece seems Gothic to me--the clarinet outlining spires in the dusk. Kell seems to throw those spires into greater relief--like a sunset--by manipulating the rhythms outside of Stravinsky's intent. Some players will dismiss this, but the emotional effect is profound (at least for me). Likewise, his middle section, with its stutter-stepping grace notes and slimily sinister hopping, sounds like an inspiration for the likes of Tolkien's Gollum. But Kell's greatest accomplishment in this second piece, for me, are his High G's at the end, which are so strong and sudden that they call to mind Ravel's orchestration for Mussorgsky's Pictures. This is vivid music, and it is somewhat startling that so unfaithful a representation of the score could result in such powerful expression.


After the first and second pieces, and the liberties taken with them, it should come as no surprise that Kell disregards tempo for the third piece as well. Like the two before it, the third is taken considerably slower than the eighth=160 marked. But of all the pieces, the third is most able to bear such liberty. Stravinsky himself told Charles Russo that the third piece was an impression of jazz (specifically ragtime era), and if we slow the piece down slightly from the 160 marked, a jauntiness to the syncopation is easier to create. The third piece is really not a virtuoso number, and doesn't impress this way, so taking the tempo back a bit to highlight the colors and structure is a good idea in most cases. 

For Kell it was more than a good idea: it was necessary, due to his readings of the first two pieces. Once again, there are wrong notes, but there is little rubato. Of the three pieces, Kell performs this the most straight forwardly, and paradoxically, it is the least interesting or moving. 

The three pieces as a whole, as performed by Kell, tend to buck the interpretation that runs in plateau form (slow/soft; medium/medium; loud/fast). Instead he presents them as a triptych with the central piece being most important. I had never thought of them that way, but I believe this reading yields a powerful symbolism bordering on existential utterance.    

With all of its deficiencies, I would still recommend this as an essential recording.    

1 comment:

Henry Melbourne said...

Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful analysis of Kell's performance! I generally love Kell's playing for his seemingly infinite capacity for spontaneity. The way he uses tone is so vivid, sweet, strident and lyrical that he can make even simple pieces compelling. It's also worth mentioning that his recordings seem to grab anyone's attention, regardless of musical knowledge/bias.

Having said all that I did find his Three Pieces so bizarre at first that I'm afraid I dismissed them quite quickly. Your analysis has shone some light on his interpretation and has reminded me that it's often more interesting to question why you don't like something rather than sticking to what you know and like.