Carl Vollrath: Lingering Longings
Navona Records

Duets are by their very nature intimate, yet the intimacy level moves to a whole other level on Carl Vollrath's Lingering Longings. That's attributable in part to the tender performances by celebrated clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and prize-winning pianist Yoko Hagino but also to how Vollrath's material came into being. The album's six compositions developed out of a deep friendship between the composer and the Phillips family, which includes clarinetist Tim and pianist Trina, their children Violet and Evan, and dog Kaspar. A note on the inner sleeve reports that the married couple provided incentive to Vollrath's compositional process by performing some of the pieces in the US and Europe at various recitals and clarinet festivals, even if it's Norsworthy and Hagino who perform them on the recording.

The highly personalized character of the project is borne out by the pieces themselves: the four-part Tim and Trina's Ball references a time when the Phillips and Vollrath performed at a Christmas party for some guests, and its third piece “Kaspar On Parade” concerns the family dog's appearance in an annual dog parade in Montgomery; Trina's Path was written for Ms. Phillips to showcase her musical abilities; the joyous Evan's Haven was composed at Tom's request to commemorate his son's birth; and Once a Bygone Time represents Vollrath's attempt to distill the essence of Troy, Alabama, at whose university he's been a music faculty member since 1965, into musical form.

Suffused with wistful longing, “Christmas Time” opens Tim and Trina's Ball on a disarmingly lovely and lyrical note; jovial moments arise, too, in the spirited romp “Kaspar On Parade” as well as those of a more plaintive, reflective nature during “Thanksgiven.” Whereas some of the material is nostalgic in tone (the title piece, to cite one memorable instance), the eight-part The Odd Pieces encompasses multiple moods, alternating as it does between the mischievous (“Wicked Witches Having Fun,” “Cat and Mouse Ball”) and the mysterious (“Midnight Waltz”). Contemplative by comparison is “Gaby with the Green Eyes,” which concerns a beautiful young woman who lived with Debussy in a cold water flat in Paris during his lean years. Certainly one of the album's most earcatching moments occurs in Once a Bygone Time when the music takes an unexpectedly bluesy turn, and Norsworthy's artistry and agility are on full display throughout the nine-minute exploration Trina's Path, but so too are Hagino's—a better musical pairing would be hard to imagine, it seems.

Vollrath's settings are simple in the best sense of the word and distinguished by a melodic directness that Norsworthy and Hagino bring forth with unforced musicality. The NYC-born composer's music speaks directly to the listener with sincerity and a refreshing lack of pretension, and his genuine affection for small-town life and the Phillips family comes through repeatedly in these assured duo performances.

April 2016