Gershwin: Music for Clarinet and Strings (CD review)

Porgy and Bess Suite; Piano Concerto in F major (excerpt); An American in Paris (excerpt); 3 Preludes.  Arranged by Franck Villard.  Michel Lethiec, Clarinet; Patrick Gallois, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla.  Naxos 8.570939.

There's always something new in the classical-music field, you can depend on it, even when the "something new" is something old.  In this case, it's Gershwin's music transcribed for clarinet and string orchestra, the clarinet being an apt instrument for Gershwin's flowing, free-spirited, jazz-inflected musical world.

Franck Villard arranged these familiar songs and melodies, apparently quite recently although the booklet note doesn't say, and he does them no harm.  Of course, it helps to like the music of George Gershwin (1898-1937) and the sound of the clarinet to appreciate the album fully, yet even if you've never heard Gershwin before or haven't given the clarinet much thought, you might still like these arrangements.  The performances are lively and colorful, a little different, to be sure, and highly entertaining.

Things begin with a five-movement suite from the popular opera Porgy and Bess, and you'll find all the familiar songs here following the chronology of the story:  "Summertime," "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," "My Man's Gone Now," "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So," etc.  Villard does a welcome job making sure the clarinet replicates most of the vocal parts, and Michael Lethiec's clarinet playing is splendidly evocative.  The five movements combine to form a suite over forty-three minutes long, so you get your money's worth.

Of the accompany pieces, the Piano Concerto excerpt is my favorite, although the American in Paris excerpt is wonderfully expressive, too, and the three Preludes form a pleasant little mini-concerto.  OK, if I have any qualm at all, it's that there is a kind of sameness to hearing so much of this well-known music played exclusively by solo clarinet and strings.  The actual opera and the various full-orchestral treatments have a greater array of instrumentation, tone, inflection, and emphases working for them to bring more variety to the music making.  Still, taken in small doses, these clarinet transcriptions provide their own rewards.

As far as Naxos's sound goes, it's up to their usual standards:  good but not quite state-of-the-art.  The miking is somewhat close, with the clarinet clearly front and center, producing clean, crisp, dynamic, if not too dimensional results.  The audiophile might want more in the way of stage depth and transparency, but I suspect most other people will find the sound satisfying enough.

Incidentally, I'd like to mention that Naxos do a terrific job with their booklet notes.  They always seem to pack more information into a tinier space than anybody else, the booklet well organized and concise in both English and French.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa