The best recordings of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

James McCarthy
Friday, January 17, 2014

Valedictory or visionary? Is there a choice? Could Mozart, who finished this concerto about eight weeks before he died, have been anything other than valedictory? Yet in his letter from Vienna to Constanze in Baden, written at midnight on October 7, 1791, he says, ‘I smoked a glorious pipe of tobacco. Then I orchestrated almost the entire Rondo of the Stadler concerto.’ No premonitions of death here. Or in his next letter to her on October 14, describing his delight at the success of Die Zauberflöte and only voicing some concern about finding a good school for their young son Carl. But what about inner anxieties, passing twinges of dis‑ease, the dives into depression? Was Mozart visionary in such circumstances? There aren’t any answers, of course.

Let’s for the moment say valedictory. And no one, in this survey of selected recordings, evokes the impression better than Jack Brymer with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra attentively conducted by Thomas Beecham. Brymer’s command is absolute, the mood calmingly resigned if rather imperturbable in his unruffled stream of notes. Orchestra winds are a trifle distant; modern valve horns grey the texture as well. Beecham isn’t to blame – period practice and all it engendered was some way off – but he deserves rebuke for cutting 28 bars in the finale. Maybe he had paraphrased Charles Hallé who, after a Manchester performance in 1855, wrote: ‘The composition, although by Mozart, is such a grandfatherly production and so lengthy that the finale had to be left out, not to try the patience of the public beyond endurance.’

Haydn Draper made the first recording in 1929 (Brunswick 20076‑8), followed by Luigi Amodio and François Etienne. None is extant. Reginald Kell survives, and his 1940 recording, enhanced by conductor Malcolm Sargent in fiery rapport, is no historic fossil. Brymer’s tribute to his colleague says it all: ‘His freedom of expression, perfect intonation and control, easy rubato and use of a vocalised vibrato much in the [Leon] Goossens manner, marked him out as something new in the instrumental world.’ Vibrato in a woodwind instrument was indeed new to many in the first half of the 20th century; and these two musicians split opinion at the time. Compare Kell with Draper – who curiously remade only the slow movement in 1931 (Clarinet Classics) – to hear how Kell’s tactfully applied vibrato ‘vocalises’ this Adagio in a way that Draper’s non-vibrato mode does not. But such recreative distinction wasn’t to be expanded, let alone repeated. Shortly after the war Kell emigrated to the US and in 1950 he recorded the work with the Zimbler Sinfonietta, an eminent American band. It’s strikingly dissimilar, a pale reflection of the non-conformist who had once brought colour and drama to his interpretation.

Benny Goodman also threw his hat into the ring in 1940. Not successfully, though. Goodman, instinctively mercurial in jazz, is scared of Mozart. And, sadly, caution rules. Even John Barbirolli couldn’t persuade him to drop his guard. Note the conductor here, the third illustrious name to be mentioned; and in the first 32 years of the concerto’s recorded history, three more made their bow – Herbert von Karajan, Václav Talich and George Szell.

Readers used to the sleekly disciplined Karajan of maturity – as demonstrated on his 1971 recording with Karl Leister, the BPO’s then principal clarinet – might be taken aback by his 1949 persona that offers Leopold Wlach an animatedly thrusting but accommodating partnership to which he responds with alacrity. Talich isn’t as lucky. His sympathetic ministrations seem to have little effect on an earthbound soloist, Vladimír Říha, whose playing is tonally monotonous and lacking in inner life. You couldn’t apply such strictures to Robert Marcellus who, with Szell as a close ally, is at his finest in the Adagio, capturing its inherent intensity at a tempo that doesn’t drag. But disparity dogs the outer movements. Conductor and soloist don’t see eye to eye, Marcellus elegant of phrase and bewitchingly cultivated in sound at odds with Szell’s powerful profiling and famed rhythmic exactitude.

Now, slip back two years to 1959, to Gervase de Peyer’s second recording. A style of performance begins to emerge. With hindsight, Kell’s 1950 remake cut a new pattern; de Peyer refined it to its zenith. His playing, of unimpeachable technique, fine finish and spotless manners, epitomises a deferential approach to Mozart that had, post-war, become the norm; and an anachronism afterwards. Andrew Marriner, with Neville Marriner, tried to revive the vogue in 2004. No chance. His idea of deference simply comes across as bland and insouciant; Marriner père smooth, dapper and unfazed, a formula foisted on Jack Brymer too. And he, at his third stab (the second, in the 1960s, was with Colin Davis but has since disappeared) is a model of self-possessed equanimity. In one respect, though, Brymer intrigues. He omits bar 333 in the first movement because the notes here repeat the previous bar. Instead the layout of the whole sequence, from bar 331, dictates that they ought to be played an octave lower. How?

The Basset Clarinet

Welcome a new clarinet, or to be precise a clarinet for which – it is now accepted – Mozart wrote the concerto. In essence Anton Stadler, for whom the work was composed, owned a custom-built instrument with an extended range. To wit, the regular clarinet ends its compass on E below middle C; Stadler’s uniquely dropped four semitones further to C. On October 16, 1791, he premiered the work in Prague from the autograph manuscript, then went on tour, not returning to Vienna until July 1796. And there, in September, Stadler gave his last documented performance.

Events then took a strange turn. In 1801 three companies, André, Sieber and Breitkopf & Härtel, published editions of the work with the solo part in an identical conversion for the regular instrument. Stadler appears not to have objected. A year later the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung compared this with the original (or copy) and confirmed the conversion inauthentic. Stadler appears not to have commented. The published version was clearly an adaptation; the additional four notes had been raised an octave or otherwise recast in ways to suit the conventional clarinet. The autograph subsequently vanished; and Stadler died in 1812, leaving questions unanswered. The adaptation held sway.

Did it matter? Well, consider as an example bars 187 to 191 in the first movement. What Mozart probably wrote was a three-octave descent from top D to D below middle C. In the amended text, the last four notes in this passage are doubled back to end on D above middle C. In effect, three octaves become telescoped into two; and a vibrant plunge from soprano timbre to baritone (also known as the chalumeau register) is diluted. The progression from bar 331 is no different and similar examples occur in the other movements too.

Rumblings about the true text hung around for the next 150 years or so – probably because Mozart had also showcased Stadler in a 199-bar sketch for basset-horn, K621b, that thematically anticipates the first movement of the Clarinet Concerto, and in the clarinet obbligato for the aria ‘Parto, parto’ from La clemenza di Tito which exploited the basset’s range. Significantly, Breitkopf & Härtel didn’t alter this. Such evidence absorbed into the gathering desire for historical veracity after the Second World War saw Stadler’s prototype reproduced (to be named the ‘basset clarinet’ by Jiří Kratochvíl) and the solo part conjecturally reconstructed by Franz Giegling, both ‘enabling Mozart’s melodic contours to be realised in what approaches their original form’ (Colin Lawson). Bärenreiter incorporated the reconstruction into its New Mozart Edition; but clarinettists also suggest their own modifications.

The Modern Basset

Modern bassets initially used in the UK were normal instruments, their lower joints replaced with specially built extensions. Alan Hacker played one such for his first London performance in 1969, as probably did Thea King for her recording. And a wind of change, prescient of an emotional dimension in the music not entirely noticed before, blows in to break the outdated anodyne mould. Jeffrey Tate unveils a tinge of melancholy in the orchestral exposition of the first movement; King responds to the mood but takes it further. Her sweet-sour tone glints and fades like light reflected off a revolving prism; and by adding varied tongue strokes to enhance passages left bare of markings, she creates in the expanded spans Mozart wrote for the basset a phrase-to-phrase tension that wouldn’t otherwise exist. If, however, in her quest for depth of understanding King is sometimes a mite constrained, her recording is nevertheless a pivotal point in the concerto’s interpretation. In contrast, Sabine Meyer is the last word in abandon; but to what purpose? Her chillingly glib performance is as empty as a shell.

A measure of stature is returned to the music by Ernst Ottensamer. He is a musician of cultivated taste but he reticently understates his role, also imitating Meyer in glossing over the raison d’être of the basset, its low notes. Martin Fröst does neither; and his interpretative acumen reaches the nub of the slow movement, in effect an operatic aria of tender pathos for a high and low voice communicated through a single instrument. Fröst ‘sings’ this Adagio, his masterly technique in command of shaded tone, long line and detail. The result is stirring indeed. The other movements are less arresting, not as tight-knit as they might be.

Reactionary Leanings

Bald fact: not all proponents of the modern clarinet believe in the basset. Dieter Klöcker’s opinion, ‘I find it deplorable that such minor matters as the appropriate type of solo instrument have become more important today than the actual work itself’, may well be typical. Peter Schmidl was one who remained orthodox. He is a musician with ideas of his own but is dampened by Leonard Bernstein, who is surprisingly flat-footed and uneventful; prosaic, too, in the slow movement.

Could you be unorthodox within orthodoxy? Stick to the traditional clarinet but not to the traditional arrangement? Maximiliano Martin tries to. He alters the solo part to mitigate the effects of some of its clumsy compromises and his solutions are about as good as they get in the circumstances. Yet scholarship doesn’t quite translate into a performance of scholarly imagination. Misgivings nag. Haven’t we experienced this approach before? The text ritually intoned? The notes slickly polished but bullishly propelled? The orchestra not resourcefully conducted?

It’s time for a wake-up call from the newest kid on the block, Fabio Di Càsola, after Douglas Boyd conducts a pulsating orchestral exposition, rhythm effervescently alive, paragraphs shaped through hairpin-like increases and decreases in intensity, the big picture always kept firmly in mind. And it’s no flash in the pan. Boyd contributes a continuously symbiotic framework for Di Càsola to build an interpretation where tone, dynamics, articulation and accents are varied to mirror a range of moods suggested by melody, phrase and harmony. Stale routine is eschewed; in its place, an act of adventurous analysis, artistically managed.

The Period Basset

Boxwood. Hard, close-grained, yellow and sensitive to atmospheric conditions; but it was the material of choice for clarinets of the day. In 1973 Hans Deinzer made the first recording on a period basset copied for him in boxwood by Rudolf Tutz of Innsbruck. Deinzer produces a slender tone, probably characteristic of both instrument and reed. It may be a particular sound. But he has nothing particular to say about the music. Nor has the conductorless Collegium Aurem. The upshot: a mid-20th-century performance on 18th-century instruments – and a cop-out. What was the point?

Twelve years later Antony Pay offers a considered proposition. Though his dynamic gradations are limited, he has a cogent understanding of structure and shape, and a good feeling for content too. Christopher Hogwood is most supportive and uses a fortepiano, not as a continuo instrument (an anachronism in itself) but to add an ‘aural flavour’ to selected notes. Roy Goodman thinks continuo and incorporates the wrong keyboard too – a harpsichord, a tinkling irritant that neither the music nor Colin Lawson needs. Yet he turns in a distinguished performance, of embellishments in excellent taste and nuanced responses to modulations, as between 9'29" and 9'51" in the first movement when the key advances through A minor, C major, E minor and D minor. Only Goodman’s misguided zeal casts a shadow. Still, Pay and Lawson do try to dig deeper; but, discerning though they are, there is more to delve into.

‘Aren’t those basset notes wonderful?’ Lorenzo Coppola seems to be asking as he produces the deepest, fruitiest sounds imaginable. Yes they are; and from a French copy of an instrument made for Stadler, so these might be the sort of sonorities he drew too. But deep notes do not a deep interpretation make. Coppola doesn’t probe the spirit, coasting through the first and last movements; and though soulful in the Adagio, his pacing is inert, clogging flow. Tighter direction from Gottfried von der Goltz might have neutralised reservations but, as matters stand, Coppola doesn’t delve.

Eric Hoeprich does – to a degree. Unexpectedly, Frans Brüggen is below form, not the musician who had recorded Mozart and Haydn symphonies that were products of a sharply erudite mind. Here at a low ebb, he doesn’t galvanise soloist or orchestra into the highest flights of innovation. Hoeprich nevertheless stays above water, thoughtful in his survey of the music, especially so in the Adagio. But he cannot sustain the concerto on his own. It’s a lone crusade for what ought to be an equitably shared journey, which this one is not. What now?

In strides Nikolaus Harnoncourt, robust thinker and undaunted subjectivist, flying the flag for a late-18th-century theory on interpretation. In sum, performance ought to reflect emotional content, so tempi cannot be rigid but must be tailored to evoke the many emotions embedded in music. It’s the principle of Affekt – ‘affections’, that is, fervour, warmth, passion, joy, sadness – spoken about by the likes of Friedrich Marpurg and Johann Petri. Harnoncourt begins as he believes but his lyrically relaxed entry is deceptive. Come the first tutti, he tautens the rhythm and prominently swaggering natural horns step in, stepping in prominently at every tutti where prescribed in the two Allegros, some more driven than others, some more swaggering and fiercely stressed than others. Tempo varies too as phrases are distended or relaxed, then released into pulse. Wolfgang Meyer, a Deinzer pupil with a Tutz replica as well, is in total sympathy but still the soloist, weaving his own spell everywhere, his musicianship fine-tuned to an expressive reach and a spellbinding spectrum of tonal subtleties. Affekt predominates, contrasts are marked, but classical proportions aren’t breached. There you have it; superlative clarinet-playing, superlative conducting and a penetrating look beyond the notes. The ultimate accolade is earned and deserved.

But…stay awhile. Let’s just savour the Adagio once more. Concentrate on the orchestra, and notice the topmost line, especially rich in the selectively deployed sound of two flutes. Listen to the 15-bar coda, the soloist partnered by only strings until the end when the winds return and flutes in sixths cast an incandescent glow – an ethereal backdrop to the basset way down below. It’s a magical close to a movement that might be Mozart’s poignant farewell to Anna Maria, his baby daughter, who had died not that long ago. An interlude of bittersweet nostalgia, a look back with the odd angry flare; yet in the soul and sinew of Wolfgang Meyer and Nikolaus Harnoncourt a look forward too, vigorous, even manic in the extrovert optimism of the outer movements.

The last work wondrously achieved. The last concerto, valedictory and visionary.

Recording Recommendations

Reginald Kell; LPO / Malcolm Sargent

Testament SBT1007

Toscanini offered a post, Furtwängler thought him the only clarinettist who played from the heart. Reginald Kell, renowned and sought after, presents a steely yet songful performance as valuable today as it was then.

Thea King; ECO / Jeffrey Tate

Hyperion CDA66199

She reversed a trend, taking the concerto to another level of interpretation. Mozart now talks tough, the genteel image drops away. Thea King, never much in the public eye, was nevertheless a connoisseur’s musician.

Fabio Di Càsola; Musikkollegium Winterthur / Douglas Boyd

Sony Classical 88697 64672-2

A 21st-century artist stays in the present but stretches the envelope. Fabio Di Càsola plays the standard edition, occasionally retouched, and Boyd champions him to the hilt. A true find.

Top Choice

Wolfgang Meyer; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Teldec 2564 69855-6

Who for decades confronted the status quo, challenged established certainties and dared listeners to think outside the box? Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that’s who. Here he is again, incorrigible as ever, wholeheartedly backed by consummately gifted clarinettist Wolfgang Meyer. Behold magnificence.

Selected Discography (Date / Artists / Record company (review date))

Standard Clarinet

1940 Kell; LPO / Sargent / Testament SBT1007 (8/92)

1940 B Goodman; NYPO / Barbirolli / Dutton CDSJB1026

1949 Wlach; VPO / Karajan / EMI 566388-2 (nla)

1950 Kell; Zimbler Sinfonietta / DG 477 5280GOM6 (3/53)

1954 Říha; Czech PO / Talich / Supraphon SU3835-2 (4/59)

1958 Brymer; RPO / Beecham / EMI 567596-2 (7/60; 10/88)

1959 de Peyer; LSO / Maag / Decca 466 247-2DF2 (9/60)

1961 Marcellus; Cleveland Orch / Szell / Sony SBK62424 (6/64)

1971 Brymer; ASMF / N Marriner / Philips 416 483-2PH (10/88)

1971 Leister; BPO / Karajan / EMI 764355-2 (6/72)

1990 Schmidl; VPO / Bernstein / DG 429 221-2GH (8/90)

2004 A Marriner; ASMF / N Marriner / Pentatone PTC5186 048

2005 Martin; SCO / Janiczek / Linn CKD273

2009 Di Càsola; Musikcollegium Winterthur / Boyd / Sony 88697 64672-2 (12/10)

Modern Basset

1985 King; ECO / Tate / Hyperion CDA66199 (3/86)

1985 S Meyer; Staatskapelle Dresden / Vonk / EMI 555155-2 (3/92 – nla)

1992 Ottensamer; VPO / C Davis / Philips 438 868-2PH (6/94 – nla)

2002 Fröst; Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Oundjian / BIS BIS-SACD1263 (A/03)

Period Basset

1973 Deinzer; Collegium Aureum / Maier / EMI 747603-2 (12/87 – nla)

1985 Pay; AAM / Hogwood / L’Oiseau-Lyre 414 339-2OH (5/86)

1989 Lawson; Hanover Band / R Goodman / Nimbus NI7023 (7/90)

1998 W Meyer; Concentus Musicus Wien / Harnoncourt / Teldec 2564 69855-6 (3/01)

2001 Hoeprich; Orch of the 18th Century / Brüggen / Glossa GCD921107 (2/03)

2007 Coppola; Freiburg Baroque Orch / Von der Goltz / Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1980 (5/08)

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Gramophone

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