A Fine Recital to Conclude 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Reger, Debussy, and Brahms: Sharon Kam (clarinet), Stephan Kiefer (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 29.12.2014 (MB)

Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5
Reger – Clarinet Sonata in B-flat major, op.107
Debussy – Première rapsodie
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in F minor, op.120 no.1

This proved an excellent final concert of 2014: an interesting programme, well performed, with the bonus of my first – and last – Max Reger of the year. First, however, came Berg’s Four Pieces: the composer at his most aphoristic, and sounding very much so in a musical as well as merely temporal sense. I wondered to start with whether the opening of the first piece was a little diffident. It blossomed, however, and I soon realised that what I had taken for diffidence had been an interpretative strategy, impressively realised on its own terms – Sharon Kam’s clarinet pianissimi in particular. The movement’s final chord lingered magically. The second piece sounded wonderfully Romantic, languid yet forceful too, phrasing very well handled throughout. A scurrying, will-o’-the-wisp-like third movement found its heart with contrasting central material, which here sounded as if the gateway to later Bergian labyrinths. Likewise the piano’s rocking rhythms in the final piece seemed to look forward to Wozzeck. This movement offered the requisite sense of quasi-symphonic unity to the work as a whole, but its own specific character too: violence powerfully communicated by both Kam and Stephan Kiefer, prior to moving, eloquent subsiding.

Reger’s Clarinet Sonata opened in palpably post-Brahmsian style, as it should. The performance of the first movement developed so as not to lose sight of Reger’s still more greatly ‘involved’ method, but crucially traced a clear path through what the composer’s detractors might consider the ‘thickets’ of his music. Kam and Kiefer both offered a degree of chiaroscuro that would surely have astonished such sceptics. (Reger surely suffers more than many composers from poor performances – when indeed he is performed at all.) Kiefer drew a mellow sound from the Wigmore Hall Steinway, to the extent that I might almost have guessed it to be a Bösendorfer. A lively, always harmonically-aware, scherzo followed, revealing rapt, innig trio material at its centre and close. The melancholy of that music prefigured the slow movement proper, which received a powerful performance, again with a very strong sense of greater line (albeit interrupted, sadly, by a lengthy telephonic interruption, the second of the evening). The ‘Idea’, if not the ‘style’, to employ Schoenberg’s distinction, made clear why that composer so admired Reger’s music. As with the Berg Pieces, the fourth movement gave a true impression of uniting differing tendencies in earlier material. Themes were characterised with admirable, even dramatic, clarity, but connections whether of a more ‘developmental’ (let us say, Brahmsian) or ‘transitional’ (Wagnerian?) tendency were conveyed equally well. The essence of the sonata principle was, even at this late stage, served well. A composer still more neglected than Busoni – save, perhaps, by organists – and more unfashionable still than Hindemith gained committed advocacy, and will surely have gained some new converts, or at least adherents.

Kam’s breath control, impressive throughout, seemed perhaps even more so in Debussy’s Première rapsodie, given the languid results. That is not to imply the more negative connotations of ‘rhapsody’, for form was perfectly clear. So, again, were the pianissimi. Softer playing from Kiefer was equally apparent – and equally welcome. Contrasts proved just as important as continuity in a fine performance.

Brahms’s F minor Sonata might perhaps have benefited from a heightened sense of drama at times, but there was no doubting the musicality of the artists’ response. The Janus-like quality of composer and music seemed almost a metaphor for the opening of the first movement – or should that be the other way around? It emerged both as an opening and, seemingly, as the continuation of an older tale. Again, musical line was seamless, without exclusion of contrast. Perhaps a little more of the latter might have dramatised the second movement, but again line was impressively present. The third movement touched one as if the light of a beautifully autumnal sun – not as the consequence of a self-consciously ‘autumnal’ reading, but as a faithful, imaginative communication of the material. The piano’s chains of intervals seemed to point towards Webern, which of course they do. Tonal variegation and structure were well communicated in the finale, which again ‘came off’ in the integrative fashion demanded both by the material and by its placing.

Mark Berry

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