Shifrin’s clarinet cries and croons in varied Lincoln Center program at Wolf Trap

Mon Jan 18, 2021 at 1:09 pm
David Shifrin performed music of Mozart, Bassi and Ellington in a streaming program presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Classical music fans continue to console themselves with digital listening in 2021. Wolf Trap has canceled the rest of its chamber music series this season, due to health concerns from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Yet on Sunday the venue continued its online partnership with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a series also led by Wolf Trap’s chamber music artistic adviser, pianist Wu Han.

The latest of these video concerts, compiled from past performances at Lincoln Center, features clarinetist David Shifrin. The former principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra and other ensembles also led CMS as artistic director before the tenure of Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

Mozart’s splendid Clarinet Quartet in A Major was the transcendent centerpiece, from a concert recorded in 2017. Composed two years before Mozart’s death, the ravishing beauty of the score gives poignant witness to the compositional voice silenced far too soon. Shifrin performed the lead part with consummately polished tone and impeccable fingerwork. (In the interview at the end of the video, he described the instrument he uses, a modern clarinet that extends to the full bottom range of the basset clarinet for which Mozart wrote this quintet.)

The quartet of string players cohered with one another well, but in the first movement their sense of tempo seemed slightly different than Shifrin’s. The main theme of this Allegro, floating in half notes, should be utterly serene, and at times Shifrin seemed to restrain the forward movement of the string players. No such struggle perturbed the Larghetto that followed it, with Shifrin trading honeyed phrases with first violinist Danbi Um. Affecting sequence patterns ached with longing, leading to a tender reprise of the main theme.

On the other hand, the strings provided the high point of the Menuetto, in the tender first trio with its halting theme for the first violin. Mark Holloway delighted on the countermelody Mozart gave to the viola in the B section, a wrong-footed echo of the first violin line, off by a beat in its imitation. Shifrin, his part silent for this section of the movement, looked on approvingly at elegant contributions from second violinist Bella Hristova and cellist Dmitri Atapine.

Exhilarating moments came in the concluding variations movements, including impressive duels of sixteenth-note runs between Um and Shifrin in the fourth variation. Again Holloway made the most of the plaintive motif Mozart gave the viola in the third variation, set in the parallel minor. With humor and pathos, he harped on the repeated F-E semitone in an Eeyore-like complaint.

Two less substantial pieces rounded out the program, beginning with the Concert Fantasia on Themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto by Luigi Bassi. The composer, principal clarinetist at the La Scala opera house, wove together some of the opera’s greatest hits with Lisztian flourishes aplenty. Shifrin excelled in all the technical challenges, from complex accompanying figurations to bel canto fireworks in the section based on soprano aria “Caro nome.” Pianist Gloria Chien, who accompanied Shifrin in this 2016 recital, supported the clarinetist comfortably in the rather bland piano part.

Chien’s interpretation was too square and well-behaved for the keyboard style called for in the concluding work, Duke Ellington’s Clarinet Lament, in a recent arrangement by David Schiff. Shifrin provided most of the pizzazz in this brief work written for clarinetist Barney Bigard by the legendary band leader, Washington’s favorite son.

Between a mini-documentary feature at the start of the 90-minute video and the artist interview at the end, there was about 30 minutes of talking. Shifrin’s understated humor made these elements an easy watch, especially the video shot during the pandemic. Particularly charming was footage of Shifrin’s dog, howling in answer to his master practicing and later chasing a toy Shifrin throws in the yard.

Like so many musicians stranded by the pandemic, Shifrin has revisited music of his youth, etudes of student days, while sheltering at home. “I don’t always remember the music,” he quipped, “but my hands somehow know what to do.”

This recording can be streamed through January 22. wolftrap.org


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