Monday, July 6, 2015

Reginald Kell's 1951 Recording of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet K581

[ Reginald Kell's clarinet playing is of interest to jazz clarinetists largely because he was an influential teacher of Benny Goodman, and therefore had a direct influence on the history of jazz clarinet sound and technique. He is also one of the few classical clarinetists cited by Pete Fountain, not necessarily as an influence, but as an admired player in terms of sound production. 

To fully understand the breadth of jazz clarinet demands a knowledge of classical playing, as the instrument initially poses many unique technical challenges. No other study can replace the mastery that classical education affords. But jazz players, with their penchant for the old large-bore sounds, can sometimes best identify with the soloists of earlier eras. Kell, with such an important connection to jazz via pedagogy, can be a logical place to start one's listening--if only to hear for oneself what players like Goodman and Fountain admired. I've therefore revised some of my old reviews of Reginald Kell's recordings, as an introduction to his work. 

Reginald Kell remains a 'controversial' figure among classical players. As a jazz musician, I find many of those controversies outside of my interest in his playing, but others I address in the reviews, as I think many are mere stumbling blocks, and ought to be removed. ]  

Mozart Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K581

[ from Reginald Kell: The Complete American Decca Recordings ]

Reginald Kell, clarinet

Fine Arts String Quartet:
      Joseph Stepansky, violin
      Leonard Sorkin, violin
      George Sopkin, cello
      Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola

New York, March 28-29, 1951

This recording came as somewhat of a shock to me, growing up when I did, without access to Kell's recordings. I had been warned that he was a 'tasteless' player, but my reaction was quite different. In fact, for those of us who have felt smothered beneath countless effete, epicurean interpretations of this piece, the first movement of this recording rings with sincere expression--it felt healthy. The recording feels somehow free of self-consciousness and pretension, which is refreshing.

The reading is musically mature. Kell's (and the ensemble's) sense of form is strong: each repetition of the thematic material, whether in the strings or clarinet, is given its own particular emphasis. I've always felt that themes in a sonata form should function like symbolic repetitions in a play: they ought to be given, according to context, a different shade of meaning in each new situation. By the end of a movement, the innocence or drama of the opening statement needs to hold something more--having been tested by the fires of development, they must emerge with added meaning. Kell doesn't shirk this responsibility, but delivers. This, for me, is part of what produces the sensation of a satisfying musical experience (and contributes strongly to the joy of this particular set of recordings.)

One of the little ways Kell shapes an overall narrative for the movement is by subtly emphasizing a certain passage in the recapitulation, as though it was a gentle foreshadowing of the famous motive from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

In The Language of Music (Oxford, 1959), Deryck Cooke once argued that phrases and shapes of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic thought carried a unified emotional value in tonal music over the generations. It's beyond the scope of this post to debate the relative merits of Cooke's theory, but if we were to pick only one motive as supporting evidence, it might be the "Fifth Symphony motive". It's been used in various settings, from Beethoven's, to Mahler's use in his own Fifth Symphony and beyond; it's even been used as a symbolic bridge between hymn tune and epic thought ('The Alcotts' of Charles Ives's Concord Sonata.) I've never heard it to mean anything weak; never something limp or cloying. But I've also found that when it does appear, it demands a true artist to draw the meaning out and offer it to the audience. Leonard Bernstein's Mahler interpretations or Gilbert Kalish's Ives recordings are good examples--these are the sort of interpretive artists intelligent and bold enough to illuminate musical symbolism.

This type of artistry is also a central aspect of Kell's playing. Because of it, the audience is able to enter the piece on a far deeper level than a mechanical reproduction of notes. This is important for many reasons, including how we hear the rest of the piece--even what might be considered mistakes otherwise. For instance, in a rare moment of roughness, Kell 'pops' a high D in the second movement (one measure before rehearsal A in the Peters edition). Ordinarily this is pretty annoying, but it's not really bad here, because Kell has already demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the music than airbrushed reproduction.

What I'm driving at is this: Audiences, even untaught audiences, can tell when a performer is more afraid of messing up the music than they are concerned with expressing something important through the music. The first type of musician tends to view themselves as a curator, the second as an artist.

My opinion is this: A musical curator tends to talk about objective performances, rigid obedience to the score, and is first and foremost a literalist. I personally believe the curator promotes a type of musical fundamentalism that has had a stranglehold on our training for several decades (and I think the strangling has played a large role in the decline of public interest in our art form).

By contrast, a musical artist views a score as the essential starting point to be transcended--a set of symbols pointing the way to what will become a piece of music through collaboration with an inspired and capable performer.

The reason Kell's "popped" D isn't a problem is therefore as simple as the difference between an artist and a curator. If we imagine a dancer and a museum curator it helps: no one is bothered by scuff marks on the floor of a dance hall at the end of a performance, but in a museum they reflect sloppiness. Context is important--and here the clarinetist chooses which context he or she desires to be judged in--we all have a choice as to whether we want to become artists or curators.

There are many other moments worth mentioning in the second movement--the ensemble passage before rehearsal D (where the clarinet has ascending 32nd notes) is some of the finest, most enchanting ensemble playing I've ever heard. Kell's ability to strengthen the melodic material throughout the movement with subtle breath attacks under the slurs is on display, most notably in the final six bars, where the music seems to cry out for such treatment--but it wouldn't work at all if Kell hadn't prepared the listener properly from the very beginning. This is another great strength of Kell's: he knows that whatever is done in the beginning of a piece has an impact throughout, and always follows the seeds of his thought to their fruition. Rarely have I heard an artist who better accomplishes what he sets out to.

The remaining two movements are excellent as well. In the Menuetto, the Quintet delivers a satisfying mixed meter feeling to the opening theme--always my preference over those who try to make sound like a smooth 3/4.

The final Theme and Variations is exemplary ensemble play--Kell knows when he's not the soloist, and plays the supportive role every bit as well as the lead. In a particularly gratifying moment--the second part of the Adagio section (letter D in Peters)--Kell shows his penchant for opening his sound on high B and C, instead of pinching: the result is warmth instead of constraint.

Coupled with K622, this reading of K581 is now my first recommendation to players.

Serenades K388 (384a), K375, Trio K498 "Kegelstatt"

The Kell Chamber Players * May 9-11, 1951 * NYC

Lillian Fuchs, viola; Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano  * July 1950 * NYC 

The recordings of the Wind Serenades don't feature Kell on clarinet. Instead, he conducts an ensemble drawn largely (or fully) from the NBC symphony. Like the "Kegelstatt" recording from a year earlier, they are definitely worth listening to, as the interpretations present us with the sort of solid, body and soul delivery typical of Kell's music making.

I recommend all of Kell's Mozart recordings. At the very least they can serve as a type of corrective or alternative approach to Mozart compared to what we are dominantly taught today. And at most, players might for once hear, as I have, something more satisfying than they are used to.

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