“How I Met Mozart” = MOZART: Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581; WEBER: Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 34 ‒ Pierre Génisson, clarinet / Quartet 212 ‒ Aparté AP149 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS], 61:22 ****:
A perusal of the catalog tells me that the pairing of the Mozart and Weber quintets is as popular as that of Mozart and Brahms. With the later combo we have peas in a pod, two late works with a burnished beauty: serious, patrician in tone. Weber is another matter; his work is youthful, playful—as critics have noted, a mini-clarinet concerto in which the clarinetist really gets to show his virtuoso chops. I think I favor pairing either the Mozart or Brahms with the bubbly Weber.
So here we have Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, written just two years before the composer’s death for his friend Anton Stadler. Stadler played the work on a basset clarinet, an instrument which, as the name implies, is related to the clarinet’s cousin the basset horn. In range, the basset clarinet lies between the soprano clarinet and the basset horn, having some extra keys that allow it to play a few extra low notes. Like most contemporary clarinetists, Pierre Génisson plays the Mozart on a standard soprano clarinet.
As noted, Mozart’s work is mostly earnest and restrained, although a rustic element enters in the minuet, which unusually has two trios, the second recalling that Austrian folk dance, the ländler. This contrasts nicely with the first trio, cast in the stern key of A minor. The high point of the work is probably the ethereal slow movement, where the clarinet gets to announce the chief melody over quiet string figures. Later, the clarinet shares this duty with the first violin, and they spin a lovely duet before a series of runs in the clarinet and then a brief solo return us to that long-breathed opening melody.
The finale has a snappy little theme that Mozart subjects to five contrasting variations in which the clarinet is either front and center (Variation 1 and 4) or a team player who cedes the spotlight to other members: the first violin in Variation 2, the viola in Variation 3. By the way, Mozart played the viola in the debut performance at the end of 1789. After a hushed final variation in which, again, first violin and clarinet share the solo duties, the piece ends with a confident Allegro coda.
Weber’s Quintet may be generally more lighthearted than Mozart’s, but the slow movement, marked Fantasia, begins darkly, pensively, though it goes on to fulfil its fantastic designation, traversing a range of moods before returning to the darker purlieus of its opening. The third movement, marked Menuetto, is a scherzo in all but name with some comic stops and starts and as always, athletic writing for the clarinet.
As with most of Weber’s other works for clarinet, including the two wonderful Concerti and the Concertino, the piece was written for Heinrich Bärmann, solo clarinet of the Munich Opera. Based on the music Weber’s wrote for him, Bärmann must have had a liquid tone as well as virtuoso bona fides. Given the spontaneity of the Quintet, it’s surprising to note that Weber worked on it over the course of four years, completing the piece in 1815. Not surprisingly, the first movement completed was the Menuetto, in which Weber established the generally playful quality of the work.
Pierre Génisson, too, has the liquid tone and unfailing virtuosity that Weber demands, and he turns in a delightful performance abetted by Quartet 212, composed of soloists from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. They work hand-in-glove together in all those exchanges between solo strings and clarinet, including the surprisingly learned fughetto that Weber injects into the finale. That’s just as true of the Mozart, where the players catch the spirit of this different species of music perfectly, as far as I’m concerned. The recording from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York is big, bright, deep in perspective, complementing the performances. A very successful presentation of these two well-loved works.