WEBER: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 73; Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 74; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra in C Minor/E-flat Major, Op. 26 – Karl-Heinz Steffens, clarinet / Bamberg Symphony / Radoslaw Szulc – Tudor multichannel SACD 7159, 52:04 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Following the success of Weber’s precocious opera Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn, he landed the position of opera director in Breslau, a post that left him frustrated and longing for pastures new. He seems to have been so glad to get away from Breslau that he assented to the position of private secretary to Duke Ludwig of Württemburg, hardly the job for a rising young composer and piano virtuoso. Almost as if karma were saying to him “I told you so,” Weber’s Württemburg experience proved a nightmare, as he ran afoul of creditors and then was tied to an embezzlement scheme fostered by his own father. Though Weber seems to have been entirely innocent, he was thrown into jail and finally banished from the city in 1810.
For the next year, he knocked around Germany, playing a concert here, composing a bit there, until his acquaintanceship with clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann put Weber back in the limelight. The debut of Weber’s Concertino in Munich in April 1811 led King Maximillian of Bavaria to commission a number of vocal and instrumental compositions, including the two Clarinet Concertos, the Bassoon Concerto, and a cello concerto that Weber never got around to writing, more’s the pity.
In the works for clarinet, Weber showed such an affinity for the instrument and possessed in Bärmann a performer of such cutting-edge virtuosity that these works went immediately into the repertoire, where they remain today. Both the Concertino and the First Concerto have features that are unusual for concertos of the time. The Concertino is in the standard three movements, but unlike a standard concerto, its first movement is an introductory Adagio, while the following movements are a series of variations on a theme. The variations become increasingly animated through the course of the second movement (marked Andante – Poco più vivo) until in the finale—an extended single variation plus coda—the mood becomes exuberant. There’s no expressed program here as in Weber’s Piano Concertino, but the progress from darkness into light, from the semi-tragic to the confident and upbeat, has its own inherent Romantic drama, especially given Weber’s penchant for operatic gesture in both solo and orchestral writing.
That’s true as well of the First Concerto, where the dark and explosive tutti passage that begins the work seems to be setting up a scene from one of Weber’s operas. When the clarinet enters, it’s to sing a sad and pensive song that eventually leads to a more relaxed theme before the opening theatrics return, and the exposition ends in the same mood of seeming anguish as it began. However, instead of a development section, there’s a modified recapitulation, the themes appearing in reverse order, giving the chance for the clarinet to comment on the dramatic tutti that starts the work.
The second movement begins in a mood of dark contemplation that some have compared to the famous Wolf’s Glen scene from Der Freischütz. But this passage is relieved by a middle section in which the horns croon a tender melody with a fresh woodsy quality about it that’s typical of Weber’s brand of early Romanticism.
The last movement of both concertos gives the clarinetist, who up till then has been exploring his sensitive side, the chance to play the acrobat and even the clown. But the music is so tastefully done that it comes off as just refreshingly lighthearted. The first movement of the Second Concerto is more forthright and even heroic than that of the First Concerto, brighter in spirit too. So the pensive, even troubled slow movement provides fine contrast before the upbeat finale. I think I prefer the more varied moods of the First Concerto, but both works are treasures.
Karl-Heinz Steffens and Radoslaw Szulc take an athletic approach to this music. The playing is very emphatic—some might think a little too much so, and some of Steffens’ playing in the upper register is so aggressive that it borders on shrillness. But mostly, his playing is expressive and very smooth, especially in the lower register. Steffens, former first clarinet with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, is certainly a formidable player, and except for those few passages where I think he overdoes the drama to the determent of sound production, his performance is a powerful one.
He and conductor Szulc are on the same page interpretively, and the Polish conductor has the orchestra play with fervor and a commandingly large but supple sound. Part of that apparent suppleness may have to do with the SACD recording, which is wide, deep, and very transparent. There’s lots of competition among CD recordings of these classic scores, but in SACD, there’s little competition at the moment. Given the very positive things that can be said for the current release, I think it can be confidently recommended.
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