One of the most enjoyable albums to come over the transom here in recent months is the Balkan Clarinet Summit, streaming at Spotify. Recorded during a series of concerts in Romania and Greece in 2012, it combines the talents of virtuoso clarinetists from all over Europe: Macedonia, Serbia, Moldavia, Turkey, Germany, Bulgaria and Switzerland, testament to Balkan music’s massive rise in popularity. If this blog gets its way, it’ll soon be as popular as cumbia! Wolfgang Pöhlmann, director of the Goethe Institute in Athens, brought in Claudio Puntin and Steffen Schorn to lead the project. In turn, they brought in their fellow clarinetists Stavros Pazarentsis, Slobodan Trkulja, Sergiu Balutel, Oğuz Büyükberber and Orlin Pamukov. Each artist contributes two original numbers, soon to be part of a documentary film by Horacio Alcala as well.
As you’ve doubtlessly figured out by now, this is no ordinary wind ensemble. While the dynamics range from whispery and suspenseful to towering and majestic, the arrangements are more lush and symphonic than you would expect in this kind of music: the group is tight beyond belief. There are plenty of wild, rather feral moments, though, beginning right off the bat with Pazarentsis’ moodily dancing improvisation that opens his first number, Nostalgia, a shapeshifting diptych of sorts.
Balutel contributes a tricky Turkish-flavored dance that shifts abruptly between major and minor. Trkulja’s first contribution is one of the more classically-oriented numbers here, a long, almost impreceptibly crescendoing sonata with a terse, jazz-inflected solo by Puntin. Pamukov’s Severniaski Tanc, by contrast, follows a kinetic, metrically thorny, bracingly chromatic Bulgarian folk theme.
If Schorn’s Colors of Istanbul is to be believed, it’s a gloomy, grey city, depicted via his darkly danciung leads against a drony backdrop that only picks up at the end. Nostalgic Dances, a mini-suite, alternates between a similar mood amd pinpoint-precise klezmer-tinged flair. Tyran’s Daughter is one of the most stunning tracks here, another mini-suite that moves through apprehensively snaky solos to a danse macabre that becomes more and more menacing as the harmonies grow more otherworldly.
Balutel’s lickety-split, microtonally-inflected phrasing takes centerstage on Breaza, an otherwise lighthearted oompah tune. Pazarentsis also shows off wickedly precise chops on one of the album’s most exhilirating tracks, a bristling chromatic suite dedicated to his Macedonian hometown, where he runs a music venue. Puntin’s Poeme, true to its title, follows a nebulous, amorphous trajectory with its misty, aching, long-tone chromatic phrases. The album winds up with Trkulja’s Pitagorino Oro, a sizzling feast of microtonal melismas, chromatics and dizzying counterpoint.
There’s also a lively, jazzy clarinet-and-bass clarinet strut and a Serbian dance with some droll hip-hop and electronic glitches. When you stream this, also be aware that the seventh track is a joke. There’s nothing wrong with your headphones, and there’s no need to reload the page, it’s just Puntin having some random fun all by himself in the studio with his gadgets. Look for this one on the best albums of 2015 page at the end of the year.