The Music Room at the Phillips Collection is such a distinctive and up-close venue to hear performers that you can forget how momentous the events there can turn out to be. That may well have been the case last Sunday afternoon when a Russian clarinet player who has been making a splash in Europe made his North American debut here in Washington.
Clarinetist Valentin Uryupin combines stellar technique on his instrument with intense musicality. He’s also been a conductor of symphony, chamber and opera pit orchestras in Russia, and what he describes as his small-town upbringing caused him to embrace the art of the possible in musical performance.
Mr. Uryupin says he started on the trombone – not surprisingly for someone who would turn out to be well over six feet tall – but had to switch to something else when the only trombone teacher in his town moved away. This broad musical background survives today in his solo programs made up of half works written for clarinet and half his own adaptations of music for other instruments.
The highlight of Mr. Uryupin’s Phillips program was the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc. Why this alternately evocative and virtuoso composition is not heard around here more often is a worthy question, given that its first performance was given not in Europe but by Benny Goodman and (at the piano) Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in 1963.
Unlike other sonatas for most any instrument, the first of three movements of Poulenc’s clarinet sonata is not self-contained but clearly an introduction to something else, with the paradoxical tempo marking of Allegro tristamente, or “sadly fast.” This idea is embodied in quirky stops and starts that Mr. Uryupin handles almost the way a virtuoso guitarist fully exposes the sound of the left-hand fret-work, with Mr. Uryupin’s lightning-quick fingerwork in both hands very audibly manipulating his instrument’s keys and valves.
The payoff is a beautiful middle-movement Romance that periodically injects jazzy spices into the intervals between the clarinet and piano notes. That leads to a fleet and agile final movement that rounds out the piece in a set of fully accessible if sometimes intriguingly off-kilter runs in which musical theater fans can almost hear a precursor of Sondheim-esque irony.
Mr. Uryupin’s facility with this kind of material also helped create that most rare of classical experiences – an enjoyable listen to truly atonal contemporary music. He performed the Fantasie for solo clarinet by Jörg Widmann, a German clarinetist/composer now in his early 40s. The composer wrote the notes but directed the performer to figure out where the bar lines are on their own. That gave Mr. Uryupin the freedom to make the most of unusual effects, including those you might hear from a “bad” clarinet player where two simultaneous notes come out slightly an octave apart but are completely intentional here.
The whole work still comes out as an optimistic and playful enterprise that Mr. Widmann, the composer, likens to one performer representing a multi-person dialogue. It worked entertainingly well in Mr. Uryupin’s hands.
Mr. Uryupin’s clarinet adaptations were more of a mixed bag. Little excuse needs to be made for any reason to hear one of Sergei Prokofiev’s sunniest compositions, his large-scale Opus 94 sonata in D major. Prokofiev alternately wrote the 1940s work in versions first for flute and piano and then for violin and piano.
The clarinet is an instrument that both dives deep and reaches high, but the transparency of its registers is not as clear as the flute or violin in the places where Prokofiev situated this sonata’s principal themes. Mr. Uryupin did compensate for the way Prokofiev’s individual melodies in higher regions sometimes seemed to bounce between two different sonic qualities by adding some rapid-fire repeated notes and other tricks of the trade to lower and middle passages.
Mr. Uryupin also performed a sonata from the early 19th century by Franz Schubert that is rarely heard simply because it was composed for a hybrid sort of instrument that doesn’t exist anymore. His clarinet transcription provided a nice classical offset to the rest of the adventurous 20th century program.
As Mr. Uryupin’s collaborator for everything except the Widmann Fantasie for unaccompanied clarinet, pianist Stanislav Khristenko added immensely to the afternoon’s program. Mr. Khristenko is a Ukrainian-born American who studied both at the Moscow Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He both has obvious affinity with Mr. Uryupin and clearly has fun playing the piano. Some of the intersecting runs between the clarinet and piano, particularly in the Schubert sonata when the clarinet was in its lower-middle register with its fairly neutral tone, were entertaining precisely because the two performers made it sound like they were playing each other’s music.
In an intriguing twist, Mr. Khristenko was one of the six laureates or top place finishers in the 2013 version of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Belgium, which rotates among musical disciplines from year to year. The 2016 competition next month swings back to the piano, and whoever wins first prize will be appearing, by pre-arrangement, at the Phillips Collection this fall in what could be their North American debut. (Just for example, of the 82 pianists who qualified for this year’s competition, 24 are from South Korea alone.) Odds are strong for yet another momentous occasion at the Phillips when that afternoon rolls around later this year.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Clarinetist Valentin Uryupin with pianist Stanislav Khristenko performed on Sunday, April 3, 2016 at the Phillips Collection – 1600 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For upcoming events in the Sunday concert series in the Music Room of the Phillips Collection, see their concert schedule.