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CHAMBER REVIEW
Mill Valley Chamber Music Society / Sunday, January 25, 2015
Manasse-Nakamatsu Duo. Jon Manasse, clarinet; Jon Nakamatsu, piano

Manasse-Nakamatsu Duo

SNAZZY CLARINET-PIANO WORKS IN MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 25, 2015

Often international-level instrumental duos are pickup couplings, one virtuoso’s schedule meeting another’s with the resulting desultory concerts. An exception would be the violinist Anne Sophie Mutter with her long-time partner Lambert Orkis, and the Nakamatsu-Manesse Duo.

The latter played a provocative concert Jan. 25 in the Mill Valley United Methodist Church, and the ten years of collaborative music-making of the two Jons was everywhere in evidence. Perhaps the recital’s major work was the E Flat Sonata of Brahms, Op. 120, No. 2. Here the playing was muscular and often loud in the Church’s diffuse acoustic ambience but it never deviated from the autumnal character of late Brahms. Mr. Nakamatsu’s phrasing with inner voices and subtle rubatos was admirable.

The scherzo was suitably impassioned and the finale (a set of variations) was taken at a fleet pace, the clarinet line rising and falling over the pedal point and solid underpinning of the piano line.

Massager’s frenzied Solo de Concours, a charming six-minute romp for clarinet, opened the recital and the Chopin Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, for solo piano, ended the first half. The first was played with delicious relish by Mr. Manasse, and the second with assured virtuosity by Mr. Nakamatsu. The Chopin has been a signature piece for the San Jose-based pianist, and was featured in his 2011 Santa Rosa recital and on recordings. Virtuosos in the past played the flowing Andante fast and the following Polonaise leisurely, but the pianist adopted the modern practice with a strolling pace (“spun out”) and a quick Polish dance ending. Mr. Nakamatsu gently teased the rhythms in the Polonaise and varied the speed of the few trills and repeats. Just before the final few bars there was spot at the top of a run where the last note was held in a bravura way with the sostenuto pedal. The effect of this and the final five repeated E-Flat notes brought a standing ovation from the 350 in the Church.

Mr. Manasse’s entertaining verbal comments preceded every work in the recital and he playfully called his partner ‘Mr. Nakamazing,” alluded to his past as a piano competition winner and high school teacher of German. The pianist took it all in stride and in the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata the Duo played the charming work from 1962 with aplomb. The Romanza was especially lovely with reflections of the composer’s earlier Les Soirées de Nazelles. The clarinet and pianissimo piano lines moved in perfect balance.

A set of three brief works spotlighting Mr. Manasse concluded the program, including his playing of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo and Charles Goodwin’s Four Views of Clarinet and Piano from 2012. The Four Views is a busy work with syncopated questions and answers from the instruments, with lyrical Coplandesque motives popping in. In places the playing was in café music style and background movie music, turning in the final section to bouncy jazz motives.

The concert ended with another work written for the Duo, John Novacek’s Full Stride Ahead from “Four Rags for Two Jons.” The Duo has been playing this work for many seasons and gave the snazzy piano-voice interplay (from the iconic Ammons/Johnson bluesy stride style) a scintillating interpretation of high-level high jinks that predictably brought down the house.

An encore was demanded and the Duo responded with an arrangement of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm from the 1930’s musical “Girl Crazy.” Mr. Manasse made a fetching display of squeaks and skips with the clarinet, along with several long glissandos from Mr. Nakamatsu. Clearly they were having a great deal of fun with the piece.

And so did the audience, including many that had heard the duo in the Mill Valley Chamber Series four years ago and who were seen asking the producers for a third appearance of this impeccable pair.