Clarinet player Jose Franch-Ballester has technique, tone and artistry in his fingers, and his performance Sunday afternoon in Kleinhans Music Hall was a marvelous demonstration of those qualities. He was joined by an accompanist, pianist Andrius Zlabys, who revealed abilities that were on a par with that of the soloist whom he was supporting.
Featured on their program were major works for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms and Francis Poulenc plus one transcription of a Sergei Prokofiev score (originally written for flute and piano) and a clarinet concert bon-bon, the "Fantasy on themes from Verdi's Rigoletto," by Luigi Bassi, an Italian clarinetist who played first clarinet for La Scala around the middle of the 19th century.
Zlabys undertook the bravura flourishes that began the Bassi piece with plenty of vigor before giving way to the quieter, almost pastoral tones of the clarinet. As the various themes wove through their skillful mutations, Franch-Ballester first displayed the kind of virtuoso fingering and superb breath control that would be a hallmark of his playing all afternoon.
Brahms' Clarinet Sonata in E flat major (op. 120, no. 2) had, according to the clarinetist, a "more noble" sound than the "more passionate" first piece in op. 120, but there was still plenty of emotion to be found in the score. While the clarinet obviously had pride of place, the piano did more than just support the soloist.
There were sections where the piano burst to the fore, but, for the most part, the two musicians didn't mess with the composer's intentions. When the first half of the concert ended, it was obvious by the way they played their roles that these musicians have worked together for a few years and were comfortable with each other's talents.
The Prokofiev arrangement began the second half of the program and displayed the composer's usual witty pacing, veering between flurries of notes running up and down scales and subtler, more emotionally vulnerable interludes. The third movement, a lush yet sophisticated Andante, was deemed by Franch-Ballester to be his favorite of the four, but the finale with its spiky, raucous melodies displayed elements more typically associated with the composer. This particular piece was an audience favorite and received the afternoon's first standing ovation.
Poulenc's sonata may not have been as serious-minded as the Brahms work, as lightweight as the Bassi variations or as thorny as the Prokofiev, but it provided a wonderful set piece for the performers' incredible control of dynamics. It also paved the way for a delightful encore, George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society on Sunday in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall.