About this Recording
9.70238 - MÁSSON, A.: Clarinet Music - Blik / Sonatina / Seasons / 3 Bagatelles / Fantasia / Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano / Wind Quintet (Jóhannesson)

Áskell Másson (b. 1953)
Music for Clarinet


Born in Reykjavik in 1953, Áskell Másson could be considered the very epitome of the Icelandic composer: widely travelled, eclectic in his interests and influences, and, in the sheer breadth of his writing, ‘useful, and to the living’, as Britten once described his own music.

Known at the start of his career primarily as a performer and composer for clarinet and percussion, Másson came to international attention at the age of 26 with his Clarinet Concerto, written for Einar Jóhannesson, then principal clarinet of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The work was featured at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1980. Since then, Másson has written music for the theatre, for films, radio and television, as well as for the concert hall and opera house. Másson’s works to date include the opera The Ice Palace (1983-87), the oratorio Cecilia (2006–8), three symphonies, sixteen concertos, and numerous works for chamber ensemble and orchestra which have been performed throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Largely self-taught as a composer, Másson studied percussion with James Blades in London, and has worked in Copenhagen, Stockholm, London and Paris, collaborating with musicians such as Roger Woodward, Evelyn Glennie, Gert Mortensen and Christian Lindberg. His own distinctive sound world owes much to the influence of individual soloists with whom he has worked, and to his love of impressionism and so-called world musics. In recent years, the influence of Icelandic folk-music has become increasingly audible: the pentatonic harmonies and melodies of tvisöngur (quint song), and the distinctive rhythms of the ancient verse known as rimur often shape his work.

Blik (Gleam), a five-minute solo work from 1979, was inspired by and composed for Einar Jóhannesson, and premièred at the Festival of New Music for Young People in Helsinki in 1980. Based on short motifs, and bright shards of virtuoso gesture which dart between the instrument’s extremes of range, the piece explores many clarinet techniques, such as multiphonics (overtones, mixed with a fundamental note) and quarter-tones. These are used not only for display purposes, but to give the music a unique and distinctive expressive fingerprint. As such, it has proved itself something of a Másson classic, and continues to be enjoyed worldwide.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano was a commission from Einar’s contemporary and colleague, the clarinettist Sigurdur Ingvi Snorrason. The composer suggests, tentatively, that Snorrason’s time spent studying in Vienna could have had some influence on the character of the piece. However, Másson composed it in 1998, in Stromness, during the tour of Orkney which had inspired his Tuba Concerto, Maes Howe. The work was premièred in Reykjavik’s Idno Theatre that year.

The Sonatina‘s three movements are played without a break. The opening Andante is a dark, slow waltz—a spectre, perhaps, of old Vienna—with its tightly coiled motifs leading to a more lyrical, meditative duet, before trilling straight into the rollicking, frisky Allegro. Notes flutter and rise in blithe larksong, before staccato dancing. After a brief silence, the piano has a loose-limbed, improvisatory interlude before the music dances its way back, tightening and teasing its musical material to a high climax point before subsiding into the Adagio. This returns to the dark, sober piano chords of the opening, and a cadenza-like clarinet passage seems to reflect on all that has gone before.

Seasons: Fantasy on a Chinese poem for clarinet and goblet drum is one of the most unusual of Másson’s chamber works. It, too, was composed for Einar Jóhannesson and for the percussionist-composer himself, for a tour of China in 1987. Másson plays the Darabuka, or Goblet Drum, used by Berlioz for the exotic Dance of the Nubian Slaves in Les Troyens.

The Fantasy is a musical reflection on a short poem by Li Po, from the golden age of the mid-Tang dynasty (705–762). Its evocations move from glimpses of spring’s first greening of the land to the white waterlilies of summer, the gold and russet heathers of autumn, and finally winter’s bare landscapes. The composition itself was shaped by a numerological scheme or pattern which the composer applied to both pitch and rhythm at the same time, and which gradually metamorphoses its way through the music, as one season evolves into another.

Just after the premiere of Blik in Helsinki in 1979, Másson made a sketch for the first Bagatelle in this triptych. Twelve years later, in October 1991, he returned to the sketch, and composed three more inter-linked Bagatelles, which Einar Jóhannesson premièred in Reykjavik that year. Each piece is characterised by Másson’s trademark juxtapositions of extremes of pitch and dynamic contrasts, and tight, teasing motifs.

Leit (Quest) darts out, its fleet moods and gestures unified by reappearances of a sustained crescendo of a note and its echoes. Dans (Dance) is an elegant, highstepping movement of playful semiquavers, sequences of upward spirallings and a final rising whirl, before a low sustained note is played, like the bow at the end of a dance. Hugleiðing (Meditation), is a triple-time Andante, rising slowly and inexorably from darkness to light, with vibrating, microtonal dying falls, as the clarinet, ever more enervated, attempts moments of song before a tranquil end.

The Fantasia for clarinet and harpsichord was originally composed for oboe in 1990: in its present form, it was premièred in 1991 in London by Einar Jóhannesson and Robyn Koh. With its contrapuntal melodic lines, and its frequent quarter-tones, the work makes considerable demands on each player. An opening Adagietto fluido oscillates nervously, the pungent voice of the clarinet high and hushed over the harpsichord’s patternings. A semi-improvisatory, coppery harpsichord section leads to the clarinet stretching into wide-arching song and multiphonics. A sustained passage, wound ever tighter by both instruments, leads to a haunting clarinet solo interlude. This, in turn, tiptoes into an Allegro moderato of delicate interchanges, jazzy syncopations, and hots up, riff-like, with drumming harpsichord, to short, sharp silences. More fiercesome virtuosity leads back to an Andante for harpsichord solo, before returning to the original tempo in serene counterpoint. Notes lengthen as the work winds down, in slow-motion memories of what has gone before.

The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano was a commission from a Norwegian trio who wanted a companion piece for Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio in B flat, Op 11. Másson chose to reflect on the Italian aria, ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’, used by Beethoven in the variations of the Trio’s finale, adding an Icelandic folksong ‘Blástjarnan’ (‘Blue Star’) into the weave. The Trio was given its première in 1985, the year of its composition, at the Nordic House in Reykjavik.

A haunting dream-dialogue, this Trio has an almost orchestral richness of resonance, and is one of Másson’s most rhapsodic works. From a gentle, purring opening, it moves to a passage of spectral shared dialogue, recalling Icelandic tvisöngur (quint song) and seeming to play with the piano’s rhythmic echoes and shuddering, windswept tremolandos. Tender piano chords, glassy clarinet multiphonics and echoing cello harmonics accelerate to a jazzy jamming session before a cello cadenza leads to a quiet lullaby of a coda, a chorale-like affirmation of the work’s material, and high cello harmonics which fade to silence.

The Woodwind Quintet dates from 1991, and was a joint commission from the Reykjavik Wind Quintet and a Swedish ensemble from Vaxjo. It had its première in January 1992 in Iceland, and then travelled to Sweden, Denmark, London’s Wigmore Hall and on to the US and Australia.

After a bright, celebratory fanfare figure, all five instruments fragment and transform it into a robust workout which becomes increasingly anarchic and unpredictable. Themes are characteristically trilled on their way, contracting, expanding and colliding, in Másson’s typically challenging and imaginative understanding of each instrument.

With its strange repeated and oscillating notes, the second movement, marked Vivo, shimmers with semitonal shifts and is pointillistic in effect. Finally, a skittering flute sets up the finale, with barking horn, rapid wingbeats as of a demented humming-bird, repeated notes and trillings; and, after a short stretch of nocturnal serenading, the Quintet is brought to a short and sudden end.

Hilary Finch

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