In Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not to Be (1942) Carole Lombard & Jack Benny play the husband and wife at the head of the Warsaw theatrical troupe who become entwined in the Resistance movement in World War II. One of the first jokes in the screenplay turns on Benny & Lombard discussing which of them should be listed first on the poster. Insofar as there is any point to this frankly discursive preamble, it is that when I first saw the names of husband and wife on the CD cover of Palimpsest, I smiled slightly to note Mika Stoltzman’s name preceding that of Richard’s.
The album opens with adaptations of Bach. The Fantasia of the BWV 903 Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is here a long-breathed sinuous air for unaccompanied clarinet. Stoltzman’s exquisite, velvety tone has been long familiar to us (I’m thinking of Tashi’s landmark recording of the Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps). His graceful agility and stamina are an especial delight in this arrangement of a keyboard work. The Fugue is arranged for clarinet, marimba and bandoneon, the concertina now famous in the English-speaking world thanks to Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla (of whom, more later). As a result, the Fugue enjoys something of a tango vibe, which suits.
The celebrated Chaconne from the d minor Partita for violin solo has, in its original form, an inherent drama. It presents such great technical challenges to the violinist, that it remains an essential rite of passage for any serious student of that instrument. The additional challenge is, once the player can negotiate the notes, to make music of it. To make it sing and dance. It may be, in adapting the Chaconne for marimba (in a sense, a keyboard substitute), that the intensity of the musical drama is somewhat ablated. The conviction of Mika Stoltzman’s performance, and the centered coolness of the track, vindicate the endeavor.
There follows a lovely arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante défunte. Subtle tremolo murmuration in the marimba serves as intro, and, as if from nowhere, the clarinet emerges with the melody. So far, so straightforward. The clarinet then takes a solo turn rather more actively emotional than Ravel’s chaste original, the duo then return to “the head” as the jazzers say. It is an arrangement both mildly daring and well turned.
The husband-wife duo asked William Thomas McKinley to write a piece for them. Warming to the work, McKinley brought them a set of 22 pieces. Three of these Mostly Blues comprise the fourth track of the present album. It is a trivial quibble with the production of the CD, to point out that there was no reason not to break out the three numbers as individual tracks. No. 2 dances out with a playful swing; The eighths are straight in No. 8. In No. 12, moody, punctuative chords in the marimba accompany the clarinet’s triplets.
John Zorn wrote Palimpsest (meaning, something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form) for Richard Stoltzman’s 75th birthday concert in 2018. The piece begins with the marimba setting up a repeated-note ostinato. Given Zorn’s affection for and occasional indebtedness to pop culture, it is tempting to speculate whether the superficial (and fleeting) similarity of this ostinato to John Carpenter’s music for his iconic Halloween was perhaps a deliberate choice, but we will do the composer the ready courtesy of resisting that temptation.
Like that of Bach, the music of Astor Piazzolla, though much more recent, has inspired numerous arrangements. It is doubly fitting, then, that an album which opened with Bach should conclude with an arrangement of the Fuga y misterio from Piazzolla’s tango-opera Maria de Buenos Aires. ■
Karl Henning is a composer, clarinetist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Henning has also written reviews for MusicWeb International, BerkshireLinks.com and good-music-guide.com.