"Fanfare" Magazine: Review
The clarinet is an unforgivingly treacherous instrument. In the wrong hands and lips it can create sounds matching chalk scraping on a blackboard. In the right hands, it can create sounds the subtlety and supple expressiveness of which inspired both Mozart and Brahms. The first thing that struck me in auditioning this release was Jennifer Showalter’s sheer beauty of tone. The second was the ease with which she could modulate its colors to the demands of the music. With the contrasting but satisfying sounds of the likes of Stanley Drucker, Gervase de Peyer, Karl Leister, David Shifrin, Emma Johnson, Richard Stoltzman, and Harold Wright ringing in my inner ears, I can say without hesitation that the young Jennifer Showalter belongs in this august company. Singers and all instrumental practitioners share one thing in common—the very sound that they produce, bereft of their interpretative instincts, goes a long way toward defining their appeal, or lack thereof. Some years ago, while discussing the cellist Yuli Turovsky in these pages, I stated that were he playing only scales and arpeggios, the result would be musically arresting. Again, Showalter’s sound alone has more than a dollop of this kind of magic.
Her choice of repertoire on this, her first CD, is telling—a mix of the familiar and the obscure; the acerbically minimalist and the lushly Romantic. Of the comparatively little-known, she offers Malcolm Arnold’s 1951 Sonatina, op. 29. Arnold is justly renowned for his orchestral music; I found this alternately piquant and lyrically haunting foray into chamber music, composed with clarinetist Frederick Thurston in mind, utterly disarming. Stravinsky’s spiky and challenging Three Pieces for clarinet solo, composed in 1919 for Swiss clarinetist Werner Reinhart, presents further challenges for any clarinetist. It breathes the same air as A Soldier’s Tale, but with its chamber ensemble boiled down to a single one-line instrumental voice. Here Showalter is verily working without a net, but is fearlessly up to the task. Of Debussy’s familiar Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano, the best praise I can bestow onto Showalter and her piano collaborator, Joel Clifft, is that they sound quintessentially French. This is, indeed, a sweet and beguilingly colorful performance of the piece.
Showalter/Clifft’s performance of Brahms’s op. 120/2 sonata is one of the most ruminative and subtly expressive performances of this warhorse to come my way. The op. 120 sonatas are, to me (if you will excuse my chronological license here), Brahms’s parallel to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. How the young Showalter found such insights into this profoundly autumnal work—music so full of nostalgia, of Brahms’s palpable sense of impending death, and of his bittersweet resignation over it all—can only be chalked up to the miracle of the art of music, and to Showalter’s uncanny sensitivity to what its mere notes on paper can convey.
The final piece, Donato Lovreglio’s (1841–1907) Fantasia da Concerto, based on motives from Verdi’s La Traviata, should, by rights, be a mere piece of musical fluff offered up at the end of a recital as a sort of musical dessert. It is all that here, but once again, Showalter, in her realization of its moments of touching lyricism, offers so much more.
Throughout this release, her partner, Joel Clifft, is hand in glove with her. Here Clifft, who has made an impressive career as an accompanist, conjures up the ghost of Gerald Moore.
The sound is excellent, easily conveying both Showalter’s and Clifft’s timbral subtleties. My 800-horsepower system smiled many times in the course of playing this disc, as did I.
"The Clarinet" Magazine: Review
Los Angeles-based clarinetist Jennifer Showalter delivers clean and crisp performances of standard repertoire in her premiere CD, European Adventure. Currently adjunct professor of clarinet at Azusa Pacific University, Showalter previously served on the faculty of California State University Long Beach, Biola University, Long Beach City College and Pasadena City College. Showalter maintains an active studio of pre-collegiate clarinet students, filled with musicians who regularly earn first chair in honor ensembles. In addition, she is a member of the Pasadena Symphony Mentor and Tempo programs, and is the clarinet curriculum developer for Maestro Concept.
Showalter’s pedagogical background makes her repertoire selection a natural choice. This disc contains standard works that are studied by advanced clarinetists: music by Arnold, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms and Lovreglio’s La Traviata Fantasia.
Throughout the recording, Showalter places emphasis on technical precision, and her interpretations stay true to the printed page. At no point does she utilize excessive rubato or emotive filigree. In addition, her technical prowess is evident, as she handles every line with fluidity and grace. Technical integrity is never compromised to achieve a melodic line, yet her phrasing is sweet and delicate, providing a true rendition of the composer’s intentions.
The disc opens with a stunning performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Sonatina. The flashy finger work of the outer movements is displayed with integrity, while the middle movement displays a tenderness of line and phrasing. In the Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie, Showalter stays true to the printed tempi while evoking the ethereal quality of Impressionism. In particular, the long lines of the opening section sound effortless, as do the arpeggios of the final page. The Three Pieces by Stravinsky allows Showalter the opportunity to again display her technical prowess, especially in the third movement. The entire work is effortlessly performed, belying the difficulty level of the composition. The second Brahms Sonata provides a break in the otherwise technique-filled recording. Showalter handles the phrasing well. Good interplay with the pianist is evident, and emphasis is placed on evoking the chamber qualities of this work. Finally, Fantasia on Themes from La Traviata by Lovreglio affords both listener and performer the opportunity to engage in musical fun, the hallmark of every fantasy on 19th-century operatic themes. Throughout, Showalter takes care to clarify the main ideas while performing the technical passages with integrity.
European Adventure is a lovely addition to any music library. It is particularly relevant for clarinet students and teachers, as it contains five standard works. The interpretations are accessible, and provide a good foundation for students learning these pieces. Showalter admirably handles both the technical and musical aspects these works, and is to be commended for her recording.
Audiophile Audition: Review
An appealing musical travelogue very well performed. An impressive debut for Jennifer Showalter.
"Bravo to Jennifer Showalter on her beautiful playing throughout this CD! I know how challenging it is to play the different styles of Debussy to Stravinsky to Brahms...and she did it all so well. I also really liked the CD design and the extensive program notes. Ms. Showalter can be very proud of how this project turned out and I wish her continued success!"
-Gary Gray, Recording Artist, UCLA, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
"I find a real musical freshness in Ms. Showalter's playing. She finds the thread to bringing the musical essence out of each work. Her work on the clarinet brings all the elements of each composition together blending the technical and musical aspects into a most satisfying presentation for the listener."
-Ken Grant, Eastman School of Music, Rochester Philharmonic
"Ms. Showalter's fresh approach to the featured selections by Arnold, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms and Lovreglio shows incredible precision and technique, unsurpassed by others who have attempted such major works. Her fine interpretation and execution of the pieces is right on the mark, as is her rich and velvety tone and balance with the pianist. Each number offers unexpected pleasure to the listener; "European Adventure" is a total delight."
-Jon Howie, Accompanist
"This is a delightful CD of music for clarinet and piano and clarinet solo. The works performed on this CD are the Sonatina for clarinet and piano by Malcolm Arnold, Premiere Rhapsodie for clarinet by Claude Debussy, Three Pieces for clarinet solo by Igor Stravinsky, Sonata in E-Flat Major by Johannes Brahms, and Fantasia da Concerto based on motives from G. Verdi’s “La Traviata” by Donato Lovreglio. The package includes extensive program notes and biographies.
The works chosen for this CD represent a broad spectrum of music for the clarinet. Each is performed to perfection by the artists. Miss Showalter demonstrates a flawless technique and gorgeous tone, with smooth and graceful execution of these difficult pieces -quiet and meditative at times, or forceful and brilliant, depending upon the mood of the work. The Brahms is especially sensitive. The Lovreglio evokes images of a master cornet virtuoso thrilling a concert audience with a tongue and finger twister.
Dr. Clifft’s accompaniment is crisp and supportive, a pleasure to listen to.
The sound of clarinet and piano is perfectly captured on this CD with correct balance of the two at all times."
-Jim Lathers, Woodwinds
"European Adventure" features an interesting mix of standard favorites and unfamiliar surprises. The Malcolm Arnold "Sonatina" is an especially delightful discovery that gets better with every listen. Ms. Showalter's beautiful, soaring phrases and Dr. Clifft's solid, sensitive accompaniment are wonderfully balanced throughout. An engaging program from start to finish, this CD is a welcome addition to any wind music lover's collection."
-Eric Johnson-Tamai, Bassoonist
"European Adventure" from Jennifer Showalter is a "must listen" for all my clarinet and woodwind students. Ms. Showalter's exquisite interpretations and flawless technique guarantee a truly rewarding listening experience! "
-John E. Nuñez, East Los Angeles College
Sonatina for clarinet and piano, Op. 29 Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Born in the English market town of Northampton, Malcolm Arnold began his professional career in the early 1940s as a trumpeter in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But after a few years, with his earliest works already in print, he decided on a full-time composing career.
Between 1946 and 1952 he wrote a group of four sonatinas for various wind instruments and piano. Skillfully written to show off the full range of a particular instrument’s characteristics, each was intended for a specific player and designed to reflect that individual’s style of playing.
The Clarinet Sonatina was written in 1951 for the influential player and teacher Frederick Thurston. The spirited first movement begins by sending the clarinet rocketing up through nearly three octaves and plunging back down again, all within the space of four measures. The second theme, a typical catchy tune in Arnold’s popular style, reappears in a ghostly pianissimo at the bottom of the clarinet’s compass at the end of the movement.
This part of the instrument’s range, the so-called chalumeau register, is also explored in the middle section of the smoothly flowing Andantino, whose moody melodic and harmonic style is influenced by Arnold’s love of jazz. It provides a few moments of edgy calm before the hectic, breathless Furioso.
Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Debussy was born in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, near Paris, and studied at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1880 he began a short period as pianist in the piano trio employed by Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy and reclusive Russian widow who was Tchaikovsky’s financial benefactor for many years. After returning to Paris he won the Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome, which obliged him to study for two years at the Villa Medici, following in the footsteps of Berlioz, Bizet and many others. His early music is influenced by nineteenth-century composers such as Delibes and Fauré, but he was also open to influences from Russian music and from music outside the European tradition; the gamelan music that he heard at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889 made a lasting impact.
One of the most radically innovative composers of the early twentieth century, Debussy combined a keen intelligence with a nature sharply receptive to stimuli and impressions from the outside world to create his distinctively sophisticated and imaginative style.
A considerable number of French instrumental pieces originated in commissions from the Paris Conservatoire for test pieces for its public concours, or students’ final qualifying recitals. Debussy’s clarinet Rhapsodie is the best known of these pieces. In 1909 he was invited by Fauré to join the Conservatoire’s Higher Council, and found himself on the jury for the following year’s woodwind exams. He wrote two pieces for the occasion: this Rhapsodie and the Petite Pièce, designed as a sight-reading test.
The Rhapsodie follows the pattern generally adopted in these pieces: an opening section (Debussy marks this one “slow and dreamy”) which allows players to demonstrate expressiveness and beauty of tone, and a quicker conclusion testing agility and clear articulation. The transition from one to the other is blurred by several subtle changes of tempo.
Although the piece is entitled “First Rhapsody”, Debussy did not follow it up with another.
Three Pieces for clarinet solo Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
As the twentieth century recedes, Stravinsky continues to retain his position as arguably its most significant composer. Born in Oranienbaum, Russia on the Gulf of Finland, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, developing his individual language with astonishing speed. This early part of his career culminated in The Rite of Spring, one of the key works of the twentieth century, whose premiere provoked probably the most famous riot in Western cultural history.
He spent the years of the First World War in Switzerland, cut off both physically and, to some extent spiritually, from his native Russia. He wrote his Three Pieces for clarinet solo in 1919 for the Swiss amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart. Reinhart financed the first production of Stravinsky’s musical theater piece The Soldier’s Tale in Lausanne in September of 1918; in the composer’s own words, he “paid for everybody and everything and...finally even commissioned my music.” The Three Pieces were Stravinsky’s expression of gratitude.
The first piece, marked Sempre p e molto tranquillo, is slow and meditative, exploring the clarinet’s low, chalumeau, register. The second, written without barlines, contrasts a free flow of wide-ranging arabesques with a more capricious middle section. The last piece owes something to Stravinsky’s interest in jazz and ragtime; it is a fast, loud, deliberately raucous piece, with a cheeky throw-away ending.
Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2 for clarinet and piano Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Although born in the North German port of Hamburg, Brahms settled in Vienna early in his career. Outwardly his life was relatively uneventful, but his music shows a personality torn by inner conflict, much of which was due to a highly developed sense of his place in musical history. When Brahms was just twenty Robert Schumann published a magazine article describing him as “the one who was to come” and acclaiming him as a figure of major significance in German music. Schumann no doubt thought he was simply giving his young colleague a major career boost. Alarmed at having the spotlight turned on him so early, however, the already highly self-critical Brahms became all too aware of the expectations he was going to have to live up to.
He produced relatively few orchestral works, and although his four symphonies and four concertos (two for piano, one for violin and the Double Concerto for violin and cello) have a secure place in the repertoire, it is his chamber music that is arguably his most significant contribution to Western music. He wrote for a wide variety of ensembles, from duo sonatas to string sextets; naturally, many of his chamber works involve his own instrument, the piano.
When he completed his G major String Quintet, Op. 111 in 1890, he intended it to be his last work – “it really is time to stop,” he wrote to his publisher, Fritz Simrock. The following year he met the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing of Mozart and Weber so haunted him that, during the summer, he produced the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. Three years later he added the two clarinet sonatas, Op. 120, the first important works of their kind.
The grace and sensitivity of Mühlfeld’s playing earned him the nickname “Fräulein Klarinette”; Brahms called him “my Primadonna.” All four clarinet works reflect this characteristic in writing, which calls much more for refinement and delicacy than for virtuoso display. The E-Flat Sonata, in particular, is notable for the number of times Brahms’ markings remind the performers to adopt a gentle, singing, undemonstrative style of playing. Brahms subsequently adapted the clarinet parts for viola, so creating the first important sonatas for that instrument as well; he also went on to produce versions for violin, which involved making adjustments to the piano part.
The first movement of the E-Flat Sonata is one of the most remarkable examples of Brahms’ flowing lyricism. He masterfully weaves his melodic content, so that what emerges appears almost without readily identifiable divisions into separate sections.
A rather more strenuous note is sounded in the second movement, a moderately paced intermezzo rather than a quick scherzo, with the texture becoming warmer and richer for the broad, sustained central trio section.
The elegantly dancing theme of the last movement is followed by a set of variations. The first strips the theme down to its essentials, while the third sets up a voluble dialogue between the clarinet and the pianist’s right hand. Simplicity returns in the fourth variation, before the tempo increases for the fifth. This is followed by a coda marked Più tranquillo, which ends with a burst of energy, exuberant but not outstaying its welcome.
Fantasia da Concerto, based on motives from G. Verdi’s “La Traviata” Donato Lovreglio (1841-1907)
for clarinet and piano (Revised by Alamiro Giampieri)
Instrumental pieces based on popular opera themes were often staple ingredients of nineteenth-century concert programs. Often written by players as vehicles to showcase their own virtuosity, they not only took advantage of that particular opera’s popularity, but also served to bring this music to a wider, non-opera-going audience. This practice eventually faded with the arrival of recording and broadcasting, but there are still a few twentieth-century examples.
Donato Lovreglio was born in Bari, on Italy’s southern Adriatic coast, but spent most of his career in Naples. He wrote primarily for his own instrument, the flute, but he also composed works for other instruments, primarily the clarinet.
His Fantasia on themes from “La Traviata” uses four themes from Verdi’s opera. The opera is based on the novel “La dame aux camellias” (The lady with the camellias) by Alexandre Dumas Jr (whose father, coincidentally, befriended Lovreglio during a three-year stay in Italy in the 1860s). The central character, Violetta, is a society courtesan who gives up her superficial life of parties and pleasure when she finds true love with Alfredo, an idealistic young man, only to be forced by his father, Giorgio, to renounce the relationship so that Alfredo’s sister can make a socially desirable marriage.
The opening of Lovreglio’s Fantasia is based on the pensive “Ah, fors’e lui” (Ah, perhaps he is the one), from Act 1, in which, shortly after meeting Alfredo for the first time, Violetta wonders whether she has found real love at last. The lively second section draws on the duet, “Libiamo ne’lieti calici” (Let’s drink from these goblets), from earlier in the same scene, in which Violetta joins Alfredo in a toast to beauty and pleasure.
The mood becomes more sombre in a passage based on “Amami, Alfredo” (Love me, Alfredo), from Act 2, Violetta’s desperate assertion to Alfredo of her love after (unknown to him, as yet) she has finally given in to Giorgio’s demands.
The Fantasia returns to Act 1, now deriving its melodic content from Violetta’s “Sempre libera” (Forever free), in which she tries to shake off her earlier romantic mood in a determination to live a life dedicated to pursuing pleasure wherever she may find it. The piece ends in a blaze of glory, with the clarinet flashing bursts of brilliant virtuosity.