Polytopia. Music for violin and electronics. Mari Kimura, violinist. (Bridge 9236)
In a bracing new collection of eight recent works, Juilliard alumna and faculty member Mari Kimura shows consummate skill and taste, combining violin with innovative electronics. She opens her recent disc Polytopia with the dazzling Variants (1994, rev. 2006) written for her by Jean-Claude Risset, taking full advantage of her shimmering tone, to which Risset adds a digital echo. Following this, Conlon Nancarrow’s Toccata (1935) arranged for violin and player piano feels like an encore—89 seconds of bristling virtuosity. The title track and GuitarBotana—both from 2004 and written by Kimura—reveal a voice of considerable skill, “carrying on the tradition of the violinist/composer,” as she writes in her liner notes. Polytopia begins with a single pizzicato which an interactive computer expands into a sextet, whereas the intriguing GuitarBotana deploys an electronic instrument that she characterizes as a “musical robot,” and might be the spawn of a steel guitar and a harpsichord. Aside from showing off her technical skills, the pair demonstrates Kimura’s compositional range.
At 15 minutes, the longest work is Frances White’s The Old Rose Reader (2002), in which Kimura’s husband, Hervé Brönnimann, recites varieties of roses, his voice weaving in and out of the violin line, not unlike the murmuring in Berio’s Sinfonia. In places the text is clearly audible, while elsewhere it recedes into the aural texture. A mournful Balkan folk song is at the heart of ComeCryWithMe (2005) by Milica Paranosic (another Juilliard faculty member), who combines multiple improvised tracks, pitting the violin in bluesy counterpoint with itself.
Robert Rowe uses signal processing for his 1996 Submarine (revised in 2004) with sonar echoes zigzagging across the soundstage. The underwater feeling permeates the entire thing; perhaps for maximum impact, one should be touring an aquarium. To close, Tania León’s complex Axon (2002) centers Kimura amid a huge crowd of percussive effects and chattering whispers. The superb recorded sound is remarkably consistent, given the use of four different engineers and locales, and makes this easily one of the finest electro-acoustic recordings I’ve heard in years.
Brahms: Two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120. Jon Manasse, clarinet; Jon Nakamatsu, piano. (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907430)
In 1894, Brahms unveiled his Op. 120 sonatas for clarinet and piano—his last great chamber works—and their autumnal shafts of sunlight rarely fail to seduce. On this recent Harmonia Mundi release, Jon Manasse, a Juilliard alum and current member of the School’s clarinet faculty, and pianist Jon Nakamatsu begin with the second of the set, in E-flat major, and in both tone and spirit they are completely aligned with the composer’s late-in-life burst of happiness. In the first movement, the clarinet and piano intertwine rapturously, blossoming with melodic invention, in contrast to the following appassionato, where the composer’s delight is slightly muted, glimpsed through a veil. In the final section, a prayerful opening introduces a theme and variations, as if, for the final time, the master chooses a familiar form, knowing it to be ripe for new ideas.
The Sonata No. 1 in F minor opens in a deeply reflective Allegro appassionato, inflamed by bursts of fierce, ascending arpeggios. The pensive Andante that follows shows Brahms at his most lyrical, and Manasse’s soulful melodic line against Nakamatsu’s plaintive chords may bring a tear to the eye; so might the waltz that winds through the third movement. Then, shifting gears, Nakamatsu plunges into the final Vivace with the kind of verve usually found in a Shostakovich scherzo. Throughout the recording, Manasse coaxes a deeply pleasurable sound, coupled with a light hand in phrasing that could make a clarinet lover out of anyone. Engineer Brad Michel, working in New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters, captures the two players with warmth and detail (with Nakamatsu at a handsome-toned Hamburg Steinway Model D).
Now and then I run into someone who doesn’t care for Brahms. Hearing a recording like this, one can only wonder, how is that possible?