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François Devienne, Sonatas for Clarinet, Wonkak Kim, clarinet, Eun-Hye Grace Choi, piano; Devienne, Sonata Nos. 1 in C major, 2 in E-flat major, in B-flat major, and in E-flat major; Naxos 970150, © 2102, 61:36, $7.99 download only.
Devienne (1759-1803) was a contemporary of Mozart (1756-1791), so the clarinet was a relatively new instrument in his time. Readers are probably familiar with the latter’s popular works for clarinet: the Trio, K. 498 (1786), and the Quintet, K. 581 (1789), but he did not write any sonatas for it, or for any other wind instrument for that matter, except the one for bassoon and ’cello, K. 292 (1775), although there are the Five Divertimenti for two clarinets and bassoon, K. 229 (1783). Devienne was a bassoon and flute player, wrote a Méthode de Flûte Théorique et Pratique in 1793, was a charter faculty member of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795 and its first professor of flute as well as an administrator. Earlier, he had been principal bassoonist in the Musicians of the Swiss Guard, the Royal band. He was universally known in his day for his playing and was also a prolific composer. Today, he is little known, completely overshadowed by Mozart.
These sonatas were all derived by the composer from ones originally written for flute, with three of them (No. 1 is the exception) transposed here to a different key to accommodate the modern B-flat instrument – the instrument of Devienne’s time was in C. Kim discusses the original scores and lists the editions used in his brief, but detailed note in the accompanying insert, which features an attractive original watercolor “Sympathique” by Youngsun Cho depicting an 18th century clarinet-pianoforte duo (Were the musicians the models?) on its cover. Brief bios accompanied by photos of each musician are on the back cover. Track listings and timings are on the outside of the tray card.
All of the sonatas are constructed on the standard Classical-period model of fast-slow-fast movements; indeed, those of the first two have identical tempo indications: Allegro con spiritoso, Adagio, and Rondo: Allegretto. Those of the other two do not stray far from the fold, although they do introduce some variety: the slow movements are marked: Largo and Adagio cantabile, and the third movements become Andantino con varazione and Rondo: Allegretto non troppo. These indications notwithstanding, no two movements sound like each other, so there seems to be an infinite variety, with one pleasing melody and rhythm leading into the next from the beginning to the end of the CD. The pieces are all of similar length, ranging from about 14.5 to just under 17 minutes, with two hovering around 15, the first being the longest and the second, the shortest.
Kim’s playing is flawless, masterful, and as pleasing to the ear as the music itself. Choi is an excellent partner, handling the unidentified modern piano expertly to evoke the instrument of the period as closely as possible, with apparently sparing pedaling, shining forth in solo moments and receding into the background to allow the clarinet to sing out in its bravura moments. The works explore the full range of notes, capabilities, and dynamics of the clarinet. It is easy to perceive the original instrumentation of the pieces for the flute in the nature of many of the melodies even though these are not mere transcriptions. This comment should not be taken as a negative criticism, but rather as a description of the natural and systematic development of repertoire for an instrument newly arrived on the scene, a step that Mozart did not take. If you enjoy listening to Mozart’s chamber music for clarinet, you will like listening to these works, too; they have the same charming and engaging ebullience and lightness.
There are a couple of other older recordings on the market of the first two of these sonatas, paired with works by other composers, mostly from other periods, but none whatsoever of the last two. Neither have I found any recordings of the original flute sonatas, Opp. 58 and 68, from which they are derived. This CD follows in the long-established Naxos tradition of issuing recordings by fine musicians who may not have worldwide name recognition, but are nonetheless world class, of undeservedly neglected repertoire. You will not regret offering yourself the pleasure of this music, especially at the enticing Naxos price.
Updated 5/1, thanks to an email from Wonkak Kim: "I especially wanted to share a few facts ... that I regret not including in our CD jacket: 1. The cover art is in fact modeled after the artists and painted by my mother; 2. The piano used is a Fazioli; & 3) actual CDs [as opposed to downloads] are available at www.francoisdevienne.org. I look forward to continue enjoying your excellent journalism! Yours, Wonkak Kim