I received this disc gratis from Yevgeny Dokshansky, clarinetist and artistic director of the group Ensemble Next Parallel, in consideration for a review. I immediately accepted when seeing it offered such a varied program, which included such composers as Peter Schickele (yes, of PDQ Bach fame) and a new work commissioned by this group.
Eager to get to the new work first, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire program. Roger Henry's Trio #2 is imaginatively scored and colorful in its creativity. It is a substantial work in four full-length movements, each simply numbered, rather than bearing descriptive titles. It has plenty of variety - songful here, lighthearted there - and even some fun in the final section. (More below.)
But beginning with the Khachaturian Trio, I was not at all surprised to hear it so easily identifiable as being Khachaturian (his music always is). But I was surprised to hear just how free-flowing and rhapsodic it is, as played here by the Ensemble Next Parallel - especially the fabulous clarinet playing of Yevgeny Dokshansky, who has a real flair and feel for the "gypsy-style", Armenian flavor of this music.
The piece is well constructed and orchestrated. And Khachaturian doesn't turn on the Armenian flavor with too heavy a dose. It is melodious, with the tunes evenly spread across both violin and clarinet, with plenty of variety. (The piano does seem to have been assigned more of an accompanying role, though, rather than an equal.) The central Allegro is especially enjoyable, with its chugging propulsive energy.
After the somewhat serious concluding movement of the Khachaturian, the Milhaud Suite sounds distinctly lightweight - with sections of gaiety (pleasant enough), but a rather severe final modere. His scoring is less imaginative, with a strong emphasis on the high frequencies of the soloists in combination, and the piano is again, curiously, relegated to more of an accompanist. However, it is enjoyable enough, in a typically Milhaud way, and doesn't last too long.
The next work is certainly entertaining - the Schickele Serenade for Three. I am not at all surprised at how good it is. Though Schickele is most well-known as his pseudonym, PDQ Bach, he is really a very talented and creative composer of "serious" music. And this Serenade is proof of that - very imaginative and enormously high-spirited (and very difficult to play in places!). The 1st movement, Dances, is exactly as its subtitle suggests: "joyful, boisterous". The central movement, Songs, is beautifully played by these musicians, with lovely singing lines. And the final Variations - indicated as "fast, rowdy" - are just that: outrageously fun, but mercifully just short of turning truly rowdy!
This is obviously the most assured and accomplished display of orchestration for this specific combination of instruments on this program. At last, the piano becomes a truly equal partner with the others. And pianist Anna Nizhegorodtseva finally gets the chance to display her considerable "chops" in the finale, with its over-the-top, honky-tonk, ivory-tinkling writing, while Dokshansky easily shrugs off its virtuosic demands for the clarinet with effortless bravura. Great fun indeed. (And now that I think about it, maybe "rowdy" is the right description after all!)
Following the rowdiness, the Henry takes us to something instantly more serious, and also to another level of creative accomplishment (as noted above). The first movement (I) is a striking contrast to the Schickele, with its expressive, ardent outpouring, with strong Czardas elements. The central movements are varied - (II) is a lighthearted dance, while (III) is a plaintive song - a lovely duet for clarinet and violin. Violinist Enrique Reynosa really shines here with his sweetly singing legato. (IV) concludes the program on a light note, with the Czardas flavor now sprinkled with just a hint of a hoe-down.
The Ensemble Next Parallel plays well all though and this is a group of musicians who obviously enjoys making music together. It must be noted, however, that the clarinet is certainly the star of the show, primarily in the way these compositions highlight it. But also, Yevgeny Dokshansky is without doubt an outstanding player. His tone is consistently excellent, focused and controlled, with an impressive variety of color and dynamic shadings. And most of all, he has a real aptitude for this music. His playing was a delight to listen to all through.
This is a quality production on the Heritage-records label, complete with a well-written, informative printed booklet. The disc appears to be a CD-R, but it played perfectly on my notoriously finicky CD player and the recorded sound is excellent. Highly recommended to clarinet players, certainly, but also to anyone looking for something a little bit different. And something a little bit fun.