By Karl W. Nehring
I was going to open this review by saying something along the lines of, "people who are fans of Brahms probably are averse to auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to them." Upon a bit of further reflection, though, I realized that I myself am a fan of Brahms but in fact do indeed enjoy auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to me. That being said, though, I must confess that when I saw that ECM had sandwiched my beloved Brahms Clarinet Quintet between two slices of music by composers that were new and strange to me, I was a bit apprehensive. Still, I persisted.
Upon first hearing the first few measures of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino's Let Me Die Before I Wake (the liner notes state that the title is taken from a book by Derek Humphry, an American advocate of euthanasia), the opening piece on this CD, I must confess that my apprehension level increased significantly. The sounds were ghostly – strange and otherworldly. I am quite familiar with the sound of a clarinet, as I used to play the clarinet and have enjoyed the sound of the clarinet on many, many recordings. But I had never heard one sound like this before. It reminded me of Tuvan throat singing, with two notes – a high and a low – being played simultaneously by clarinetist Reto Bieri, who explain in the line notes that "with special grips, even with slight changes in the approach to the sound, it is possible to create particular multiphonics, through breathing and blowing (a big difference!) I can influence these sounds in the finest degree. How to explain this physically is really a mystery to me. And I am very happy that most of it is a mystery to me. That's the way it has to be, it's mysterious music and has to be mysterious." After my initial shock, I played the piece a few more times and began to appreciate its haunting and fascinating sounds, finding myself in awe at the ability of both composer Sciarrino and performer Bieri to create and navigate such a strange but wonderful musical landscape. This is music from the bardo.
Overall, then, Quasi Morendo ("Almost Dying") is an artistic reflection on death, life, and states that lie between. The liner notes are helpfully informative, with an especially interesting essay on the Brahms. I can recommend this release highly to music lovers – especially Brahms fans – whether they be familiar or not with his Clarinet Quintet. There is much to enjoy and much to contemplate here, both in the music and in the notes. A splendid CD!
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: