Bargemusic sets sail with music for clarinet and piano

Mon Sep 08, 2014 at 11:46 am
Alexander Fiterstein performed music of Bernstein, Brahms, Poulennc, and von Weber Saturday at Bargemusic.

Alexander Fiterstein performed music of Bernstein, Brahms, Poulenc, and von Weber Saturday at Bargemusic with pianist Michael Brown.

Olga Bloom’s thrice-converted coffee barge looks, and often sounds, a bit different on post-Labor Day evenings. As the daylight wanes and East River winds pick up, Bloom’s floating chamber music institution—cozily docked at Fulton Ferry Landing since 1977—makes for an even more romantic mise en scène under the Manhattan Bridge overpass. Despite the rain that bookended the night, Mark Peskanov’s Bargemusic provided an idyllic berth to clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and pianist Michael Brown’s survey of single-reed sonata form.

First on their program was Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Written from 1941-42 for his friend David Oppenheim while the composer was a student at Tanglewood, the Clarinet Sonata is Lenny’s first officially published piece. The themes sometimes sound underdeveloped when played by lesser performers, but not so here. Fiterstein and Brown’s expertly wrought dynamics in the lyrical Grazioso that opens the work helped give clarity to Bernstein’s Hindemith-indebted logic. Likewise, the second movement Andantino benefited greatly from Fiterstein’s sumptuous low register and the plinking, higher-end ivory of Brown keyboard work. At times, especially in the more syncopated moments of the Vivace, Bernstein’s asymmetrical rigor tended to become ironed out. But thanks to their clever marking of the recapitulated theme, Bernstein’s quixotic notions proved both clear and present.

Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, was the centerpiece. Brahms’ principle of developing variation within the traditional four-movement form is worlds removed from that of Bernstein; however, Fiterstein and Brown’s performance of it was no less inspired. Be it their strictly matched figures in the impassioned Allegro, Fiterstein’s virtuosic breath control in the dying bar of the Andante or their perfectly paced Allegretto waltz, all together, it was the high point of their program. With a New York boat taxi sailing past the unblinded windows of the stern during the final, rubato-infused Vivace, the Brahms sonata could not have been any better choreographed.

The Steinway moored at Old Fulton Street could certainly stand a few repairs, or at least a tuneup. Yet Brown and Fiterstein finessed the difficulties well, especially in Francis Poulenc’s beguiling Clarinet Sonata in B-flat Major.

Dedicated to Arthur Honegger in 1962, the work was one of the last pieces Poulenc would complete. Coming two decades after Bernstein’s sonata, Poulenc’s is the more skittish and angular of the two. (Bernstein at the piano gave the Poulenc its posthumous premiere with dedicatee Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall.)

The first movement, curiously marked Allegro tristamente, is, itself, written in a fast-slow-fast sonatina, a fact not lost on Fiterstein and Brown. In the calm romance and fiery finale that followed, the two performers put the finest of points on the exposition and development. Pity, again, that the Steinway couldn’t dutifully pick up their rendition, as this sonata should be as canonical as the Bernstein.

Whereas it wasn’t as apt a selection programmatically, Fiterstein and Brown nonetheless ably closed with Weber’s Grand Duo Concertante in E-flat Major, J. 204 (Op. 48). The initial allegro con fuoco brimmed with all the requisite fury, and no amount of ornamentation—rife as it is in the clarinet’s second theme—could slow Fiterstein down. Brown’s heavier pedaling occasionally blurred some of the lush piano writing in the slow movement, but Weber’s long, leading lines were never buried as a result. After so much formal abstraction, ultimately, their playful Rondo allegro sent the 100-plus house home humming its jaunty tune.

Editor-in-chief at Classicalite and associate editor of The Piano Forum, Logan K. Young’s classical criticism has appeared everywhere from NPR to the Baltimore Sun to Paris Transatlantic. He’s written books on Mauricio Kagel and La Monte Young, as well as liner notes for Valentina Lisitsa’s album of Chopin and Schumann études (Decca). Young lives in Gowanus, Brooklyn.   

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