Sharon Kam / Gregor Bühl / London Symphony Orchestra AMERICAN CLASSICS

This is a unique collection of American works involving the clarinet‚ brilliantly performed‚ but sadly‚ it is a disc very hard to enjoy because of the unrelentingly aggressive quality of the recording. Most of this music is jazz­influenced‚ which may account for the balance of a recording‚ made in the Olympic Studios in London‚ which makes it feel as though you are shut up in a matchbox with very loud and persistent performers. Maybe that is the way some jazz­lovers want to hear their music‚ but these are works that‚ for all their brash qualities‚ demand the subtlety of light and shade‚ of dynamics less than fortissimo‚ and they hardly get that here. For all the virtuosity and feeling for idiom in Sharon Kam’s solo work‚ it sometimes feels as though one is actually inside the clarinet.
I remember feeling how unnecessarily dry and aggressive the recording was for Simon Rattle’s ‘Jazz Album’ – listed in selected comparisons above – which includes Bernstein’s Prelude‚ Fugue and Riffs in a superb performance with Michael Collins as soloist. But going back to that makes me realise how‚ close as the sound is‚ it has more air round it than this one‚ and reveals far greater subtlety of shading in Collins’s solo work than is revealed in Sharon Kam’s. As for Sabine Meyer’s performance on her ‘A Tribute to Benny Goodman’ album‚ it masterfully reveals the work as having far more qualities than surface brilliance.
When it comes to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto‚ the contrast between Meyer and Kam is even more marked. The wonderfully smoochy melody of the long opening section‚ which is so seductive with Meyer‚ is here made to sound sour and unpleasant‚ and for that I am not inclined to blame the soloist‚ but simply the recording. From their scrawny sound you would never recognise string­players from the LSO either. The second of the four movements of Morton Gould’s Derivations is a ‘slowly moving contrapuntal blues’‚ but it comes across as depressingly arid. Rhythmic control in the fast music here and throughout the disc cannot be faulted‚ but how wearing it all is.
The Gershwin songs are performed in free‚ jazz­elaborated arrangements by the conductor John Cameron and Gregor Bühl (Summertime)‚ and there you might argue that the close­up sound is more appropriate‚ but even in Artie Shaw’s Clarinet Concerto – by far the least adventurous music on the disc‚ yet a skilful mix of classical and jazz procedures – one craves for more subtlety in the sound. And how odd that no hint is given in the booklet of Kam’s background or achievements. (Gramophone)

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