in Reviews

Songs in empty landscapes

by Martin Anderson

Here’s a bold idea, and a bold choice of repertoire, and it largely works – although I found it more rewarding to concentrate on one work at a time rather than listen through in a single session, even with the multitracked rhythmic jollity of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint to bring variety to the sound of solo clarinet. The trouble is that almost all the pieces follow the same basic premise.

The album opens with Outi Tarkiainen’s Sans paroles (2012), an eight and a half-minute lyrical rhapsody with an improvisational character – which, indeed, most of these pieces have of necessity, since there’s no harmonic undertow to suggest a sense of direction. I hadn’t heard of Tarkiainen before; she was born in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, and her website tells me that this place has proved a constant source of inspiration for her. In Sans paroles one can indeed sense a single voice echoing out over an empty landscape.

‘Abîme des oiseaux’ is the third movement, for solo clarinet, of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written in a German prisoner-of-war camp in the dying days of 1940; Messiaen wanted the music to suggest infinite sadness, and its extremely slow tempo has tested the breath and lip control of clarinettists ever since.

Aulis Sallinen describes Luciano Berio’s Lied (1983) as a ‘plaintive song’; like Sans paroles, it seems to be sung to a world devoid of people. Sequenza IXa (1980) is one of Berio’s fourteen Sequenze for solo instruments (the ‘a’ indicates that Berio later produced versions for alto saxophone and bass clarinet); at sixteen minutes in length, it’s the longest piece and, perhaps for that reason, comes the closest to establishing a narrative.

But it’s Donatoni’s Clair I (1980) that brings the most textural and rhythmic variety, not least because of its coquettish, dancing character. By this point, though, I would have welcomed a tune as well!



Tarkiainen: Sans paroles
Messiaen: Abîme des oiseaux (Quatuor pour la fin du temps)
Reich: New York Counterpoint
Berio: Lied; Sequenza IXa
Donatoni: Clair I
Lauri Sallinen, clarinet 

Alba ABCD 413