Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mr. Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band * The Seven Ages of Acker * 1959

In a Persian Market (Ketelby)
I'm Going Home (Bilk)
Ory's Creole Trombone (Ory)
Summer Set (Bilk)
The Light from the Lighthouse (Traditional)
The Gay Hussar (Lincke)
Tiger Ray (LaRocca/DeCoste/Shields)
Lucky Rock (Rainey)
Cushion Foot Stomp (Williams)
Run Come See Jerusalem (Blake)
Old Comrades March (Teike)

Columbia - 33SX 1205

Mr. Acker Bilk * clarinet, vocals
Mr. J. Mortimer * trombone
Mr. K. Sims * trumpet
Mr. R. McKay * traps, background vocal on "The Light from the Lighthouse"
Mr. E. Price * double bass
Mr. R. James * tenor banjo
Mr. D. Collett * piano on "Summer Set"

Technological advance, methodical and relentless use of resources, constant innovation understood as a virtue, commercialism as a way of life, gratuitous competition as a means of marketing: these are aspects of the American psyche which tend to spill over from economics and industry into the rest of our culture as well. Jazz history has been no exception. Sometimes this mindset has produced explosively creative results; at other times the inability of the American mind to cease its restless, insatiable consumerism seems to get ahead of itself and leave little ground unscorched before it could be properly developed.

Comparing jazz history to European concert music history reveals this compression--whereas Functional Tonality took centuries to develop, and stylistic epochs in classical music history stretched sometimes for multiple generations, Jazz went from polyphony to an early 'gallant' style to high romanticism to full fledged modernism in about four decades. Some of this was simply a result of the interaction of jazz with modern European music, but certainly much of it had to do with the restless, voracious, and nervous American muse. Because of this, we've often depended upon other cultures to maintain, value, and support styles invented here and abandoned before they've even reached full fruition. France, England, and Japan have often, since the mid-20th century, been more supportive of American jazz musicians than their native country. Because of this, the spread of jazz has not necessarily followed the trajectory abroad that it has at home -- "Trad Jazz" is not only celebrated on other continents, but it has produced heirs from other cultures who have added their particular voice and ethnic flavor to the music.

One of the strongest of these Trad Jazz currents flowed through Great Britain in the 1950s and '60s, and a major focal point was the fascinating and soulful music of clarinetist Acker Bilk. Bilk's contribution is beyond that of being a curator of New Orleans style tunes abroad--he actually advanced the art of jazz in ways that have yet to be fully appreciated on this side of the pond.

First, perhaps, a discussion of his sound is necessary. It's an interesting coincidence of history that the traditionally broad, mellow, full sound of English clarinetists has more in common with early New Orleans style clarinet than the 'American School' of classical clarinetistry. As such there was a natural sympathy between Bilk and New Orleans players such as George Lewis, Albert Nicholas, and Raymond Burke. It would be a mistake to think of Bilk as an English copy of New Orleans sound, though--there were many differences. His chalumeau, while strong and expressive, didn't have the typical New Orleans richness, and while his clarion register could hold with the best of the NOLA crowd, it's his altissimo that is so striking: Bilk's altissimo was actually much stronger than most Crescent City traditionalists, making him able to sustain lines with strength and clarity in unique ways. His intonation was also quite good--and while he always honored George Lewis and other foundational New Orleans players, he didn't fall into the trap of playing too flat so often (which seems to plague many NOLA style traditionalists). All in all, he took the style and brought strength, clarity, and a certain amount of virtuosity (though never descending into mere flashiness).

The Seven Ages of Acker likewise takes New Orleans style as a point of departure, applying it broadly, not only by playing standards (such as Tiger Rag and Ory's Creole Trombone), but in terms of repertoire. In it, Bilk expanded the base of traditional jazz, integrating light music that was popular with British audiences in the early 20th century such as Ketebey's "In a Persian Market," and Lincke's "The Gay Hussar." Significantly, this music was the direct precursor of British Invasion rock (several Brit Rock bands and players of the following decade cut their teeth in trad-jazz groups of the '50s). Like those bands' backbeats, which were based upon American Rhythm & Blues, but didn't really sound or feel like it, there is a distinctive English quality to the way Acker Bilk's Paramount Jazz Band swings--a quality that Americans ought to take more seriously, because to dismiss it is only to lose the creativity and subtle innovative quality that this music offers. The more you listen to English Trad Jazz, the more you hear the long history of the British brass band and light music blending into the New Orleans style. That it is such a good fit is both fascinating and enjoyable. As with so much English music, there's always an admirable emphasis on soul and real emotion rather than mere technique. That's wasn't always the case with American jazz since the bop era, and can serve as quite an antidote to self-conscious modernism.

It's noteworthy that a Bilk original from this album, "Summer Set", was a top ten hit on the UK charts, setting the stage for his biggest: 1961's "Stranger on the Shore"-- the first British tune to hit number one on the American Billboard charts (predating Beatlemania). "Summer Set" is a very simple tune, but the bright sincerity of it serves as foreshadowing to the lighter, optimistic hits of Paul McCartney during his Beatle days.

This band, and this album, is one of the most intriguing of the Trad Jazz contributions from the British heyday of the '50s and '60s. They didn't just serve as a cover band, but as a creative, innovative group in their own genuine and humorous way. There is still much to be learned from what those English traddies did, and for those who haven't yet delved into it, this album is highly recommended.

The Seven Ages of Acker gets The Jazz Clarinet's highest rating: Five Good Reeds, for the command Bilk shows on clarinet (especially his masterful altissimo) while expanding and moving the music forward. While Americans had by 1959 largely abandoned the New Orleans model, Bilk & Co added to it, showing there was still much work to do, and that the style can be developed continuously.

How to become a Jazz Clarinetist

Several times over the last few years I've been asked the best way to become a jazz clarinetist. Well, that's a tough one, as there really is no best way, and perhaps there isn't even a good way. I don't recommend trying it unless you have to, and if you have to, you tend to find your own way of doing it. Having said that, here are some steps that I've noticed are pretty common. By posting them, I'm not endorsing them. Just saying they tend to be the way to go about it. Please drink responsibly. 

1. Quit your day job.

2. Go to New Orleans.

3. Eat blackened fish at the Gumbo Shop.

4. Play on the street or anywhere they'll let you sit in.

5. Acquire tremendous technique.

6. Learn everything you can about scales and chords.

7. Put on your headphones (or somebody else's if you can't afford your own anymore) and listen to Sidney Bechet, Leon Roppolo, Omer Simeon, Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Irving Fazola, and Pete Fountain.

8. Play Pete's solo to "St James Infirmary" in retrograde, only to realize it sounds better played forward.

9. Go to Chicago.

10. Drink vast quantities of bad alcohol. (Optional, but too well documented to leave off the list).

11. Shout Frank Teschemacher solos loudly and somewhat angrily while sauntering around the Loop.

12. Repent early and often.

13. Stare at the ceiling of your hotel room for several hours in the afternoon while running through Benny Goodman solos in your mind.

14. Smile softly to yourself, knowingly.

15. Drive to Shekomeko, NY, in the middle of the night, so as to arrive in early morning.

16. Imbibe the air.

17. Stand in the middle of Route 82 or 83 and contemplate the scenery while mentally noting the perfections of Shaw's solo on his last recording of "Don't Take Your Love from Me."

18. Call, email, or text her, saying it's not her fault and you're trying to set things right.

19. Pick up your horn.

20. Let the blues out before they kill you.

21. Lose technique to make rent ("Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.")

22. Forget everything you learned, but forget it in the right way (or else all your learning will go to waste).  

23. Play 'A Closer Walk With Thee.' The right way this time.

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.    

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Eric Seddon's Hot Club * St James Infirmary * March 2015

Here's a clip of Eric Seddon's Hot Club from our debut at The Wine Spot last March.

Reginald Kell's Mozart Clarinet Concerto, K622 * Zimbler Sinfonietta * 1950

Like most clarinetists who have been subjected to redundantly similar version of the same piece, I've almost given up on Mozart Concerto recordings. When  I saw this set from DG leading off with K622, I was tempted to skip to the second or third disc. Feeling I should eat my vegetables before cake, though, I put on K622.

This particular recording was made in New York, in May of 1950. The accompanying ensemble is known as the "Zimbler Sinfonietta"--a group formed by Josef Zimbler, cellist of the Boston Symphony, and seemingly drawn from the BSO's ranks. I was intrigued to learn there was no conductor for the session. Despite its cold, chiseled beauty, I've always been frustrated, for example, with the Marcellus/Szell version of the Concerto--the straight-jacketed feeling of a soloist following the baton, waiting for permission to phrase, and being dictated the emotion seems antithetical to the point of a solo concerto, in my opinion, however pristine the results. Mercifully, there is none of that sensation here.

Kell, even for the uninitiated, comes with a reputation. I've heard teachers refer to him as a "jackass" and a "clown" during lessons. Even without those assessments, two words are generally mentioned: vibrato and rubato. With these in mind, my only expectation was something on the 'outrageous' side (if there is anything outrageous left to expect these days). Wild shifts in tempi, syrupy bleating, honking...whatever might be there, I was ready for it. Because of this predisposition, I was even more shocked by what I actually heard.

While vibrato certainly plays a part in this recording, to anyone who has listened to soloists over the past four decades, Kell's usage in this Mozart recording is hardly shocking: it would be considered mainstream among soloists these days.

Technically speaking it's certainly one of the finer and more polished renditions I've heard. Kell's control is superior to many other recordings. His Hawkes & Son Excelsior Sonorous clarinet (if that was what he used for this session) handled tricky spots like Measure 83 in the First Movement with considerably more grace than later players of polycylindrical bores (most players of polycylindrical bores experience a type of "flubbed" sound over the break in measure 83--it seems to expose a problem of design).

Now the challenge of measure 83 isn't worth mentioning unless it is a symptom--and when it can't be played convincingly it is indeed a symptom of a bigger problem with flexibility and control. That Kell handles this moment relatively better than most (save the German bore players), perked my ears up, and they were not disappointed on a technical level for the rest of the piece. His handling of the arpeggios traditionally reaching to the low altissimo [Mvt I mm.145-147] was superior to most recordings from mid-century--he neither backs off, nor squeezes the sound, but simply reaches up and plays them. Perhaps most gratifying of all were measures 172-192, which were executed as well as I have ever heard them. Kell is in complete control, the high D played apparantly on the side, but fully, beautifully, evenly in the context of the passage, with no jarring change of color or need to balance a problem of stuffiness. His echo technique in the same passage is beautifully executed; naturally, as though spontaneous, and without the pedantic quality that is always a danger.

The rest of the concerto follows suit. The third movement in particular deserves some mention, for here we are treated to Kell's spring-like, confident bounce to the articulation, so perfectly suited to the music and so often ruined by either self-conscious "lightness" (resulting in effete timidity) or a tendency to hammer staccato, presumably to prove one has cunningly spotted dots above the notes. Not only does Kell surpass such poor execution--his playing is so natural it seems as though such bad readings never occurred to him (perhaps they never did).

Leaving the focus on technique for the moment, much has been made about Kell's use of rubato. There are certain recordings where this is justified. I'll dedicate a future post to the Stravinsky Pieces, where a charge of excessive rubato might be legitimately leveled, but in his Mozart the accusation would be false. A great deal might be mistaken for rubato, but there is a difference.

One of Kell's most identifiable traits is a type of "breath accenting" under slurs. He does this with more subtlety than many critics might acknowledge, changing a phrase by slightly emphasizing a note here, clipping another (without tonguing) there; very subtle timbral and dynamic changes throughout passages that can give the overall impression of rubato, though Kell's use of true rhythmic rubato is no more pronounced in this recording than in most standard interpretations of the piece--perhaps even less.  The end result of Kell's approach is a more declamatory quality, and because of his individual attention to so many notes, there is a firmness to the metric structure absent from most readings. Thus, even at soft dynamic level, he can project a type of strength of conviction. This happens in the slow movement rather remarkably, where this tender, prayer-like melody is deepened with a full grown, masculine depth. As a full grown man myself, I find this refreshing!

Kell's remarkable sense of ensemble is on display here as well, and he integrates certain passages into the orchestra better than any recorded version I've heard.

All things considered, this is simply one of the finest, most musically satisfying recording of K622 I have ever heard.

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.