Michael Norsworthy & David Gompper: Traceur: American Music for Clarinet and Piano
New Focus Recordings

As per its subtitle, Traceur is, quite literally, American music for clarinet and piano: all six of the composers featured are American, even if one, Lukas Foss, was born in Germany before emigrating to the US at a young age. But the classical settings on the release are American in other ways, too. In sometimes drawing from jazz and even blues traditions, they embody the country's melting-pot character as well as its vitality, optimism, and pioneering spirit, and furthermore the clarinet itself carries with it indelible associations with the US via Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the opening flourish of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and so on. The recording also acts as somewhat of a survey of American composition in presenting works written as early as the 1940s (Foss's Three American Pieces) and as recent as the 2010s (Marti Epstein's Nebraska Impromptu and David Gompper's Traceur). Put simply, America's roots show throughout this excellent collection of premieres and first recordings of new transcriptions for clarinet.

Satisfaction doesn't come from the compositions alone but in the stellar musicianship of pianist Gompper and clarinetist Michael Norsworthy (WAM, his collaboration with Michael Finnissy, was reviewed at textura earlier this year). Both bring impressive credentials to the collaboration, Norsworthy the Chair of the Woodwind Department at the Boston Conservatory and Gompper, a composer as well as pianist, a professor since 1991 at the University of Iowa.

If there's somewhat of a polyglot character to Souvenirs, the opening six-part piece by Robert Beaser, it might have something to do with the fact that it pairs reworks of his Mountain Songs for flute and guitar with three movements of new material. “Happy Face” introduces the work on an appropriately buoyant note, its bright tone explained in part by its white keys-only piano part, after which “Lily Monroe” brings Souvenirs' folk dimension to the forefront. Elsewhere, “Y2K” and “Ground O” exude elegiac qualities, while “Cindy Redux” swings with a jubilance reminiscent of both jazz and ragtime. With elements drawn from Appalachian tunes and a Spanish folk song, the work's stylistic breadth reflects American industriousness.

Though Joseph Schwantner originally composed Black Anemones as a soprano-and-piano work for Lucy Shelton, it's heard here in a transcription for clarinet by Norsworthy, whose playing invests the dreamy setting with a depth of feeling equal to Dawn Upshaw's version on White Moon. Written at Norsworthy's request, Epstein's Nebraska Impromptu evokes in wistful and at times brooding musical form the landscape remembered by the composer from his childhood. Foss acknowledged the influence of folk music, jazz, and Aaron Copland on his Three American Pieces, but its parts, which range between heartfelt lyricism and moments of high energy, are primarily marked by their song-like character and melodic emphasis.

Drawing inspiration from the art of Parkour, Gompper's fifteen-minute title piece parts company in exchanging the nostalgic, often song-like form of the others for a freer, explorative style. Yet even though it's comparatively more abstract, it shares with the others a high-spiritedness emblematic of America and its music. If there's a moment when Traceur departs American shores for another locale, it occurs when “Field of Stars,” the sinuous opening movement of Derek Bermel's SchiZm, evidences a rather Arabian flavour.

All told, this is a consistently rewarding recording distinguished by virtuosic playing by Norsworthy and Gompper. Though changes in dynamics and tempo are admittedly easier to administer when two are involved than a larger ensemble, the deep connection between the musicians is evident throughout the set, and the expressiveness of their performances proves to be as strong a selling-point for Traceur as the pieces themselves.

October 2016