MOZART: Clarinet Concerto & Quintet – Berlin Classics

by | Sep 15, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

MOZART: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major, K. 622; Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, “Stadler”– Sharon Kam, basset clarinet and conductor / Isabelle van Keulen and Ulrike-Anima Mathé, violin/ Volker Jacobsen, viola/  Gustav Rivinius, cello/ Österreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie – Berlin Classics 0016672BC [Distr. by Allegro], 57:39 *****:
As in the case of the famous clarinet pieces written by Weber and Brahms, we can thank a virtuoso clarinetist for Mozart’s two gems for that instrument. For Weber, the virtuoso was Heinrich Bärmann; for Brahms, he was Richard Mühlfeld. Mozart’s inspiration was his longtime friend clarinetist and composer Anton Stadler. The two were also Masonic lodge brothers and so could be expected to look out for and help one another. Thus Mozart kept Stadler in mind when he composed the 1786 Kagelstatt Trio, K. 498, for the then-unheard-of combination of clarinet, viola, and piano. Mozart also specially arranged for Stadler to play the clarinet solos in his opera La clemenza di Tito when it debuted in Prague in 1791.
In Mozart’s day the clarinet represented a family of instruments, which included the low-toned basset horn and the basset clarinet, an instrument that is longer than the standard clarinet and capable of playing a few extra notes in the lower register. Stadler was a virtuoso on both of these instruments. In fact, K. 622 started life as a concerto for basset horn in 1789. Mozart picked it up again in 1791 and reassigned the solo part to the basset clarinet; it was his last completed work.
Since the basset clarinet never established itself as an orchestral instrument, Mozart’s great works for clarinet have traditionally been played on the standard soprano clarinet, but the original-instruments movement has found performers returning to the basset clarinet. This lets them hit the lower notes without transposing them upwards. And Mozart does explore both the lower and upper registers of the basset clarinet in his works, as befits virtuoso display pieces. But the instrument also produces a richer and firmer sound in the middle, often called chalumeau, register. This register is closest in sound to the human voice, and as a vocal composer Mozart could be expected to exploit its possibilities in the nobly melancholy slow movements of the two works, as well as in the minor-key variations of the Quintet’s finale.
As I say, at this point there’s nothing novel about recording Mozart’s classics on a basset clarinet, but the playing on display here is far from an everyday matter. Sharon Kam and her collaborators take the fast movements at a sprightly clip, which gives them added spunk, of course, but also added contrast to the tenderly expressive slow movements, which are played with utmost beauty and sensitivity. Kam, whose earlier recordings of Classical and Romantic works include prize winners, plays with a beauty of tone that would be the envy of most clarinetists. She also directs the Österreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie, known in English-speaking countries as the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, famous for its complete series of Haydn Symphonies in UHJ Ambisonic on Nimbus. Predictably, the orchestra does the same kind of justice to Mozart, producing a sweet yet full, rich sound that’s the perfect ground for the richer tones of the basset clarinet. Kam’s partners in the Quintet are all solo-quality musicians who also specialize in chamber music, so you hear as much beautiful tone production from them as from the clarinetist.
The booklet features several photos of the very photogenic Ms. Kam wearing a sweeping dress of green silk and gold brocade; close-ups of these materials throughout the booklet suggest that the artist felt they sum up the experience of this CD pretty well—and they do. Mozart’s music may be richly beautiful, but it’s made of durable stuff.
The Berlin Classics engineers provide a nigh-ideal listening experience: the sound is warm, intimate, perfectly balanced. This recording is a winner on all scores.
—Lee Passarella

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