Matthew Nelson: Meditations and Tributes: Works for Solo Clarinet
Soundset Recordings

No better clarinetist would seem to be better equipped to take on this challenging programme of contemporary solo pieces than Matthew Nelson, an Assistant Professor of Clarinet at the University of Louisville who performs with the Grawemeyer Players, the school's resident contemporary music ensemble, and the Louisville Winds woodwind quintet when not bolstering his profile as both performer and pedagogue at home and abroad. A committed new music advocate, Nelson has worked with acclaimed composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Joël-François Durand, Bruce Quaglia, Diane Thome, and Eric Flesher, many of them represented by works on the album.

Meditations and Tributes proves to be something of a master class with respect to exploring the clarinet's expressive potential, which the opening movement, "Blütenstaub," of Saariaho's three-part Duft soundly illustrates by working low percussive tremolos, flutters, mutliphonics, microtones, and glissandi into its taut three-minute frame; the third part, "Flüchtig," similarly dazzles, though this time in featuring dramatic glissandi effects that naturally arrest the attention. In so expertly rendering the material into physical form, Nelson demonstrates a staggering command of the instrument, though it's hardly the only time his playing makes such an impression. His unerring handling of pitch, tempo, and dynamics plus the ease with which he incorporates extended techniques into the performances leave a strong mark.

As strong as Saariaho's piece is, it's matched by Joël-François Durand's La mesure de l'air (from a group of four pieces for solo instruments collected under the title La mesure des choses), the album's longest single-movement setting at nearly ten minutes and one of its most explorative. In keeping with the idea that air is in a state of constant motion, the musical material likewise changes throughout the movement, its melodic elements constantly renewing and transforming themselves each time they return. Fantastical swoops and jazzy syncopations in the first part of Franco Donatoni's Clair catch the ear, as does a range that sees the clarinet inhabiting the highest and lowest limits of the woodwind. Karel Husa's Three Studies for Solo Clarinet demands a similarly virtuosic performance from Nelson, during its robust “Mountain Bird” invocation in particular.

Dedicated in memoriam to Milton Babbitt, Bruce Quaglia's After Milton: Three Vignettes for Solo Clarinet draws upon Babbitt's own solo clarinet work My Ends Are My Beginnings for some of its source material, but Quaglia's wide-ranging treatment is more inspired by Babbitt's embrace of expansive sound possibilities than an exercise in stylistic replication. Marc Satterwhite's For Dallas is also a memorial piece, this one composed for Dallas Tidwell, a clarinet professor at the University of Louisville who died of cancer in 2015 and was Satterwhite's longtime friend and colleague. Packed into its five minutes are moments of sorrow but rage, too, the work purposefully designed to encompass the range of emotions people experience during times of loss.

No one should feel daunted by the uncompromisingly ‘modern' nature of the works involved, all of them composed between 1980 and 2015 and many premiere recordings: Nelson's always dextrous readings are infused with an energy and enthusiasm that make them feel as accessible as a three-minute pop song. And hearing the clarinet unaccompanied affords the listener a rare opportunity to fully savour the instrument's nuances, especially when they're brought forth by so eminent a practitioner and when the works in question extend clarinet technique into bold new regions. Meditations and Tributes is essential listening for devotees of contemporary clarinet works, but in truth the sixty-four-minute collection has a broader appeal that should make it of interest to anyone with an appetite for adventurous solo clarinet performance.

December 2017