In 1938, as the year kicked off in January, Benny Goodman, jazz clarinetist and the so-called “King of Swing,” stepped on stage with his band at Carnegie Hall. It was considered a turning point for the genre, a moment when it went from being a dance hall pleasure to an art form worthy of taking a seat and savoring, just as much as a Beethoven symphony. That year, 1938, also marks the point when Goodman began to explore “classical” music more deeply. He recorded Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581, and (along with Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, a friend of Bartók’s who, like Bartók, fled war torn Europe and landed in California) commissioned Bartók for a chamber work. The result was Contrasts. Goodman’s foray into the genre was not short lived. He studied classical clarinet technique with Reginald Kell, and embarked on many classical projects: commissions for works by Malcolm Arnold, Morton Gould, Copland, and Bernstein, as well as recordings of Stravinsky, Brahms, Debussy, and more Mozart, amongst others.
Contrasts is a three-movement work, with the two outer movements, Verbunkos and Sebes, based on Hungarian military recruiting (hussar regiments) dances, and the foreboding slow middle movement, Pihenö rest. Drawing on ancient classical techniques, Sebes, the final movement, requires scordatura tuning for the violin, or, a re-tuning of the strings to facilitate different tonal possibilities. The result is a fantastic amalgamation of old European folk traditions and jazz, which is in some ways the modern take on the folk music of the United States. Both have structures but much improvisational space, an emphasis on syncopated rhythms with winding melodies.
From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot