To the non-specialist this may appear an unusual, if not lumpy, programme that U.S. clarinettist Andrew Simon, Hong Kong Philharmonic principal, has put together for his Naxos debut. The album title implies coherence, or at least yin and yang, but there is no immediately obvious thread linking composers whose names are by no means all universally recognised.
On the other hand, with experienced performers, a fairly generous running time and good sonics as givens, clarinet-lovers and performers at least will doubtless give the disc a try. They are unlikely to feel disappointed by a pleasing mixture of light and virtuosic. However, agnostics should be aware that Simon and Lee's recital has a good deal of the much-loved lyrical 19th or early 20th century - Weber, Spohr, Müller, Poulenc - feel about it. Only Lutosławski can be said to be a modernist, yet with his folk-inspired Dance Preludes, even he is part of what turns out to be a markedly terpsichorean theme.
In other words, this is after all a disc that can be enjoyed by all those whose tastes are centred on tonal, melodic, well-proportioned music. Cooke's and Arnold's are the standout works, arguably, but nothing in the recital is without interest or indeed a sense of humour and warmth.
Andrew Simon is a fine virtuoso, but he is also master of a very impressive tone which he applies to handsome expressive effect, even if his selection does lean towards the lighter side. Pianist Warren Lee is a poised accompanist throughout, but often much more - these are, after all, not 19th-century clarinet showpieces. His playing is certainly better than his writing - his booklet notes are enthusiastically informative, but sometimes overly so. For example, Nichifor is, alas, not well known at all, let alone "for his many compositions dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust". Lee also wanders a bit - Arnold's attachment to the trumpet is as tangential here as the elucidation of aleatoricism given under Lutosławski.
In a sense, Naxos have mistimed this release - Michael Collins and Michael McHale's programme for Chandos (CHAN 10758) came out only a few months earlier to justified acclaim, and included the works by Arnold, Cooke and Horovitz. In other words, clarinet fans may already have invested in most of this programme only a short while back and thus feel little inclination to pay out again already. Incidentally, the claim by the Naxos in-house reviewer that this recording "introduces to the record catalogue six 20th century works for clarinet and piano" is wildly inaccurate. The Arnold, Horovitz, Cooke and Lutosławski have all been recorded many times, staples of the clarinettist's repertory that they are.
As briefly mentioned above, sound quality is very good, although it must be said that a more intimate location than Wyastone Hall would have served the solo clarinet better. Nichifor's Two Dances in particular suffer somewhat from reverberation. Simon's breathing is also much more audible than it need be.
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