Klara Kollektiv Shines Light On New And Old

New ZealandNew Zealand Anthony Ritchie, Franck, Brahms: The Klara Kollektiv (Anna McGregor [clarinet] Manu Berkeljon [violin] Taru Kurki [piano]), The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand, 22.7.2018. (PSe)

Anthony RitchieThree Scenes for solo clarinet (2016, NZ première)
Franck – Sonata for violin and piano in A major
Anthony RitchiePicture Stone: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano  Op.198 (2017)
Brahms – Sonata No.1 for clarinet and piano in F Minor Op.120 No.1

When ensembles first started giving themselves strange-sounding names, it looked like nothing more than a passing fad, most probably one of those brilliantly inventive PR ploys (of the “it’s the eye-catching name that gets you noticed” variety, so beloved of motor manufacturers). Well, so it seemed, except that an embarrassingly large number of years down the line this particular “fad” is still going strong.

Take, for instance, the Klara Kollektiv – which immediately struck me as a comic-book schoolboy’s mis-spelling of “Clara Collective”. But, if it should strike you in the same way, then we’d both be wrong, because this is an exception that proves the rule. As any self-respecting Swede will happily point out, the Swedish word “klara” means “clarify” – the ensemble’s idea being that it is “dedicated to shining a light on new repertoire as well as sharing familiar favourites”.

The genesis of the group seems somewhat elusive, because no-one has told the tale, so to speak, in one gulp. Permit me to gather the morsels. Apparently, it started in Sweden in 2010, with the formation of the Antithesis Quintet by Kiwi clarinettist Anna McGregor. An unfortunate injury (is there any other sort?) to one of its players would have put paid to the group’s 2014 NZ tour, were it not for some fast footwork to re-jig the ensemble. Thus was born the Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet, and did another Kiwi, violinist Manu Berkeljon, enter the picture.

Now, Kiwis meeting for the first time in a foreign land are apt to be exceptionally sociable, so it came as no surprise that, within a couple of years (in 2016 or 2017 – I’ve come across both these dates) they’d hatched the idea of continuing to work together whilst varying the constitution of their ensemble, of drafting in different musicians as “icings” on their “cake” –hence the “Kollektiv” part of the group’s name. Being the permanent members, they adopted two operating conditions: (1) regular visits to NZ, and (2) active support of new music. For the Klara Kollektiv’s second “incarnation” (the Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet having been retroactively granted the honour of being the first such) they drafted in the Finnish-born pianist Taru Kurki, forming the trio that’s currently touring NZ under the auspices of Chamber Music NZ. Whangarei Music Society hosted this, the third of their 11 recitals.

Their touring repertoire includes clarinet trios by Bartók (Contrasts, which sadly for me did not feature in Whangarei’s programme) and Khachaturian, sonatas by Brahms and Franck, with works by the Dunedin composer Anthony Ritchie covering the NZ corner and short pieces by Sibelius the Finnish one. The Ritchie “connection” dates back to 2014, when the Dalecarlia played his Clarinet Quintet; ever since, they’ve maintained a sort of symbiotic relationship – he writes music for them and they perform it for him.

This programme included two works by Ritchie. The recital opened with the NZ première of Three Scenes for solo clarinet, which was written specially for Anna McGregor. Ritchie’s intention was to reflect something of the sonic landscape of NZ’s native bush. It’s very neatly crafted, breathing spaces (which, I suppose, are quite important) being artfully integrated to preserve musical continuity, and making much use of rapid interleaving of contrasting phrases in different registers to simulate two-part writing; I might not have expressed the latter very well, but the impression is truly striking. For instance, the first movement sets a slow theme low down against a strident bird-call high up, whilst the frolicsome finale develops an astonishingly convincing “duetty” feel.

To my mind, Anna McGregor fully justified the composer’s expressed confidence in her technical abilities, with her creamy lower register, penetrating top, finely graded phrasing and dynamics, precise breath-control (her diminuendi were a wonder to behold!), and by no means least her agility, especially when rattling between registers without a trace of “leakage”. However, she probably exceeded his expectations interpretatively. Right at the outset (“Stealth”), she seemed to create a sunrise, detached phrases gradually coalescing – a progression remarkably immune to the interpolated bird-calls – into a mildly jazz-inflected light of day. The second movement (“Bush Scene”) she infused with musing soulfulness as of one contemplating the beauties of the bush (and another noisy bird), whilst in the finale (“Play”) she worked up a real “swinging” feel – and did a fair imitation of a one-man band.

Next up, and giving Anna a well-earned breather, was César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano which, the programme notes said, “has been suggested as a possible inspiration behind Marcel Proust’s description of an unforgettable sonata in his novel Swann’s Way.” Being myself just over half-way through Proust’s mind-boggling heptalogy, I can add that it’s also mentioned in the fourth novel. There seem to be several contenders for the source of “Vinteuil’s Sonata”, a strong one being Brahms; however, my money is on Franck, albeit for no better reason than he’s the only contender who spent his entire adult life in Paris.

Violinist Manu Berkeljon and pianist Taru Kurki seemed intent on performing this work as a “continuous drama”, progressing from the hesitant, almost timid initial piano phrases to the effusively euphoric conclusion. Throughout, Manu stood impassively, only the bits of her doing the playing showing any real signs of animation, throwing the enchanting sounds she produced into vivid relief. From my perspective I couldn’t see much of Taru, but, with her rich chords and pinpoint fingerwork, the sonic impression beautifully matched her partner.

The first movement, suffused with Romantic warmth, was expansive and intimate, the players unfolding the music at a pliant, sensitively judged pace, laying it out like a red carpet for the listener to tread – and be led by the hand through to the pianistic ripplings that open the second movement, with its deliciously “throaty” violin theme. Potently expressive, they seemed to have divined the music’s heartbeat and harnessed it to propel this thrusting music to a “powerhouse” conclusion.

Emerging out of a breathless silence, the third movement’s violin Recitative seemed to hark back, or perhaps reflect, the piano’s first movement solo. Thence to the Fantasia (the “Vinteuil moment”) which, over Taru’s delicate arpeggios, Manu rendered with a touching tenderness that became more meltingly shaded with each variation. They started the finale (a tune I was surprised to find so familiar) very gently, as though reluctant to let go of the mood of the Fantasia. Gradually they picked up the playfulness, the music expanding with passionate surges and gathering momentum – the players judging this last so finely as to be nigh-on imperceptible. Their coda, replete with teeming, thunderous piano and ecstatic violin soaring overhead, truly capped this captivating performance.

At this point – the interval – I got to pondering how this “klara” business worked. Obviously, it couldn’t be the same sort of “clarify” – the elucidation of important details that are generally submerged – that we expect in the best symphonic performances; neither, for that matter, could it be anything so facile as simply “shining a light on new repertoire”, could it? After all, anyone who merely plays new music must, willy-nilly, do that. I pondered, but found no convincing answer. All I could come up with was something unconvincing: maybe the “light” they shine is analytical, probing the score’s innermost secrets, and using what they find to “construct” an optimally representative interpretation? Yet, if so, then surely it would apply equally to the “new” and the “old” music?

The programme’s second Ritchie work was an eleventh-hour substitution. Someone spotted that the programme as arranged didn’t include any work featuring all three players. So, the ladies kindly offered to replace the originally programmed Sonata No.3 for violin and piano by the Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano Op.198, “Picture Stone”. Apparently, this was commissioned by Anna and Manu especially for this tour.

Ritchie said that he “drew inspiration from the Viking picture stones (or Bildsten) held at Visby Museum [Sweden]. These ancient artefacts comment on elemental aspects of human life in symbolic images. For example, it is possible a human life is represented by the journey of a Viking boat from dawn through to darkness.” He also helpfully suggested that the music, through the hints (no more than that) of the section headings (Dawn, Child, Journey, Battle, Sacrifice), might suggest “a child in Viking times, contemplating a picture stone, and imagining journeys and battles ahead”.

Well, it didn’t for me! Not that it mattered, because I had plenty of images of my own – and the sections, although fairly brief, bristled with variety and “sheer entertainment value”. Ritchie, perhaps I should add, although a thoroughly “modern” composer does not belong to the “squeaky gate” school – not by a long chalk. More to the point, in this piece Ritchie, having recently become interested in “naïve art” (which surely, to be proper picky, is the sole province of artists who have no formal education or training in art – so maybe he really means “primitivism”?), is toying with the parallel idea of a “naïve music” – which would go very nicely with the idea of a child’s view of a picture stone.

Certainly the elements of primitivism are there in abundance – for instance, lots of simple ideas jostling together in short episodes and the absence of elaborate forms and development (it’s modelled on, if you like, a kaleidoscope). In the opening section, the piano’s slow depths, the violin and clarinet’s folk-like chant, the piano’s agitated repeated chords stirring up the other instruments, and the violin’s “fiddling”, simple and brief as they all are, could well suggest the dawn stirrings of a primitive village. Similarly, the second section, with its perky “pipe and fiddle” dance-tune and plenty of impulsive shifts of tempo and texture, has about it an air of playful children.

Yet, in the third section, the almost incessant rippling and spiky tune, feeling like a cross (or mixture) of dance and fanfare, followed by a more motoric piano rhythm over which the clarinet and piano “sing”, in spite of what it’s “supposed” to be invoked in me a vague feeling of “Debussy” – one of the sophisticates against whom primitivism was a reaction! Not to worry – it’s all good fun. The last two sections, which seemed (to me) to run together, introduced further slightly cockeyed imagery. A slow piano “vamp” was overlaid by an angular tune, creating a sort of “boogie-woogie” with a bit of “swing”. Before long, things took a pentatonic turn that nodded in the direction of Disney’s dancing mushrooms – what, I wondered momentarily, had these to do with Battle and Sacrifice? But maybe I was not taking a childish enough view of such as these.

The foregoing reflects the performance as well as the music – Anna, Manu and Taru played it all to perfection, by their perceptive characterisation of the music’s multifarious facets, and resisting any temptation to “over-interpret”. The ending was very droll: as the final piano chord died away slowly, all three “froze” in the act of stopping playing and held their poses until, at last, someone in the audience couldn’t hold out any longer and started clapping!

Much as I would have liked to hear Picture Stone again, I was by no means mortified at moving on to the final item, Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120 No. 1. Brahms, we are told, had just nicely “retired” from composing when his eyes – or rather ears – were opened to the potential of the clarinet as a chamber instrument. In this instance, “late” was definitely better than “never”, since within three years he’d produced for the instrument several magnificent works, ground-breaking because he was the first to set the clarinet in the ensemble as an equal, rather than a concerto-style soloist.

Anna’s clarinet sound was bright and penetrating, but mellow and liquid in quiet moments. Correspondingly, Taru’s piano ranged from bold and forthright to a clearly articulate whisper. Both evinced a great feeling for Brahms’s “organic” progressions and the broad sweep of his melodies. Sounding as though they were utterly unaware that Brahms was supposed to be dull and stodgy, the music was always clean-edged, rhythmically vital, naturally pliable and scrupulously contoured. Thus was the first movement, full of red-blooded warmth, vigour, delicacy and even tenderness, right through to its “sotto voce” ending.

The second movement is marked Andante un poco Adagio (which strikes me as almost as tricky as Mahler’s infamous Allegro Energico, ma non Troppo). To my mind, Anna and Taru hit this particular nail right on the head. They played this short but sweet movement with disarming simplicity, tightening the tempo just half a notch going into climaxes (and of course slackening off on the other side). Was this a Good Thing to do? I don’t know, but it worked a treat. In the ensuing Allegretto Grazioso they were eminently grazioso; the music brimmed with bucolic vivacity, was often feather-light – and never within a mile of “hefty”. The air tingled with a lovely, ländler-like feeling, here and there hinting (just hinting) at a Mahlerian dance.

In their hands the Vivace finale certainly lived up to its marking. The scintillating piano set off at a rattling pace, with the bubbling clarinet fair bouncing alongside. Relaxing only marginally in lyrical moments, the players short-changed no-one in moments of sheer cheekiness, and in the more grandiose passages transmuted the customary Brahmsian corpulence into pulsing momentum – convincing us that the elderly Brahms was indeed still “young at heart”. Now, “old” or “new”, that’s got to be “klara”, hasn’t it?

Paul Serotsky

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