Sharon Kam, clarinet; Ruben Gazarian, Wurttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn. Berlin Classics 0300547BC.
The last time I reviewed a recording from clarinetist Sharon Kam, it was of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on Berlin Classics, and I loved every minute of it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I listed it among my favorite albums of 2011. This time she is working with the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn under conductor Ruben Gazarian, and the subject matter is quite different--opera transcriptions for clarinet and orchestra. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it almost as much as the Mozart, and the Berlin Classics sound is as good as ever. It is an engaging disc all the way around.
Ms. Kam’s idea for the program was with the help of arranger Andreas N. Tarkmann to “trawl the rich stocks of Italian vocal music for suitable works and compile them into an interesting, diversified programme and then to write arrangements for clarinet and orchestra.” Ms. Kam explains to us that her husband is an opera conductor who one day told her, “If you love opera so much, why not go operatic yourself!” Which is what she has done on this album of music by Verdi, Puccini, Ponchielli, Wolf-Ferrari, and a strong helping of Rossini.
First up is a good example of the rest of the program, Rossini's "Del periglio al fero aspetto" from Maometti II, in which Ms. Kam's clarinet sings as sweetly as any vocalist could. The interesting thing throughout the album is that Ms. Kam never tries merely to offer up a collection of greatest hits. Indeed, unless you are a devoted opera fan, you may not recognize a lot of these tunes. Instead, Ms. Kam has found operatic music that particularly complements the soaring lyricism of her instrument. The combination is felicitous, to say the least.
Next, we find a collection of things from Giuseppe Verdi, normally piano-accompanied vocals that work exceptionally well for clarinet and orchestra. Incidentally, I should add that the chamber orchestra accompanying Ms. Kam plays smoothly and sympathetically under the sensitive direction of Maestro Gazarian. Anyway, these Verdi pieces are lush and lovely, and, in the case of the last item, bouncy, the playing from everyone, especially Ms. Kam, exquisite.
Following the Verdi is Rossini's little “Bolero,” a song he composed for fortepiano and voice. It is filled with charming melodies, which Ms. Kam exploits nicely, her clarinet floating gently in and out harmoniously in folklike sequences of romance and sentiment.
After that we get three tunes by Giacomo Puccini, operatic-influenced songs he wrote for piano accompaniment. Ms. Kam well captures the flavor of their bel canto nature. Then it's on to Amilcare Ponchielli and the chamber piece Paolo e Virginia, the only work on the program originally written with a clarinet in mind. Andreas N. Tarkmann says in a booklet note it's like “a little instrumental opera scene,” quite dramatic in its robust phrasing.
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari gets a series of four tracks next, each of them originally intended as purely instrumental music--intermezzos and ballet interludes. This suite comes off as a kind of clarinet concerto, filled with happy, energetic, enthusiastic playing throughout.
The disc ends with Rossini's "Nacqui all'affano" from La Cenerentola. It's typical Rossini and probably the song on the program most familiar to listeners, music overflowing with good cheer and performed in virtuosic style.
I don't usually like albums that contain bits and pieces of things, but with Ms. Kam's offering I have to make an exception. Her playing is so uniquely affecting and the arrangements so refreshing, the disc may go down as an early favorite of the year.
Producer, engineer, and editor Eberhard Hinz recorded the music for Berlin Classics at Harmonie/Theodor-Heuss-Saal, Heilbronn in 2013. Although the supporting ensemble and the venue are different from Ms. Kam’s previous album, the sound engineer remains the same, so it’s no wonder we get a similarly good recording. The clarinet sounds beautifully integrated into the acoustic field, just ahead of the orchestra but not so close as be unnatural. The midrange appears as clear and lifelike as you could ask for, and the frequency extremes, which are hardly a concern in any case, are more than adequate. There is also a warm, ambient glow to the music that is most attractive, the clarinet offering up fresh, pure, mellifluous tones.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: