INKPOT#79 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART Clarinet Concerto. Sinfonia Concertante. Meyer, et al./Staatskapelle Dresden/Vonk (EMI)

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)(Basset) Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622
Reconstruction of the original version for basset clarinet
Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K 297b
St Paul Chamber Orchestra with Sabine Meyer, 2 Feb 1999, Singapore.It does not take one long to understand why the legendary Karajan picked Sabine Meyer to head the clarinet section of the Berlin Philharmonic. Having opted for a solo career after a controversial exit from that orchestra, she has had a remarkable performance and recording career.

It has often been said that the cello is the closest instrument to the human voice; however it is the clarinet that in my opinion comes closest to the human soul. It is not only an emotive instrument; put in the hands of a world-class performer, one is immediately transported to a higher plane. Meyer possesses a phenomenal technique displayed in every facet of her playing, technically speaking and in terms of Mozart‘s music. Her clarity of sound reached right to the end of the hall – mind you I was seated at Row X, seat 20 – yet every note sounded so clear.

The introduction was given a true Mozartian setting by conductor Hugh Wolff, and Meyer played with clear conviction and faultless dexterity. Mozart’s music remains one of the hardest to perform. His demands on technique is equally demanding for all the solo instruments he wrote for, and the clarinet is no exception.

Playing in a totally relaxed atmosphere, Meyer produced an immaculate tone in both the high and low registers. Even when an extended pause was called for at the extremes, she displayed no sense of faltering. Her clear articulation and phrasing was always so alive. What I noticed was that her breathing was never short or hurried and remained always in control. One interesting aspect of this was seen in the development in the first movement where she had to articulate descending arpeggios right down to the extreme lower registers – her slick fingering and cleverly sculpted phrasing made it look so effortless.

In the Adagio she displayed her introspective character, helped by the well-defined ensemble work from the orchestra. This was one of Mozart’s last works for a solo instrument and Meyer was able to give a deeply heightened reading. Mozart fell in love with the clarinet and it is this love that the music somehow portrays. In the finale, her dexterity was again displayed with superbly intricate runs done with clarity and understanding. I have not heard this concerto ‘live’ in a long time, but after hearing Meyer play, I know that this work will definitely be in my shopping list and I will pick no other soloist but hers.

Hence… back to the CD review…

SABINE MEYER clarinet
Diethelm Jonas
oboe · Sergio Azzolini bassoon
Bruno Schneider
horn
Staatskapelle Dresden
conducted by Hans Vonk

EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century 5 66897-2
[56:18] mid-price

by Johann D’Souza

What makes a recording a “great recording”? Everyone has different views, but to me it is the ability to inspire that makes a recording great, and that’s what Sabine Meyer has done for me. I attended the ‘live version’ of the clarinet concerto at a concert in Singapore in February 1999 (reviewed here) and I have to say that, that particular performance has not only lingered in the recesses of my soul but it has even inspired me to want to learn to play the clarinet.

Sabine Meyer
This recording definitely has its reasons to be called a great recording of the century. I had never seen a basset clarinet prior to her performance in Singapore (see box). Watching Sabine Meyer deliver this concerto visually is quite an experience because she produces her sound from the inner depths of her being. Her breathing is always so well-timed; she may actually give you the illusion that it’s all done so easily but in actual fact it has taken years of practice to perfect her art. She also dips her clarinet downwards to ‘reach’ the lower notes and can be seen to be enjoying herself throughout, making the whole experience a joyful occasion. Mind you when Mozart composed this work, he wasn’t exactly in the best of financial or physical situations.

For those who may not be aware, Sabine Meyer rose to “fame” in a controversy when Herbert von Karajan made her principal clarinettist in the male-dominated Berlin Philharmonic – an act not to be taken too lightly. Judging by the standards in which Karajan had picked outstanding players, for example, Anne Sophie Mutter – one cannot ignore his choice.

As a soloist Sabine Meyer has made many recordings under her exclusive contract with the EMI label, notably the “Tribute to Benny Goodman” album and the “Blues for Sabine”. However her most popular recording has been the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

A special mention to Hans Vonk for his direction in this performance, creating genuine Mozartian spirit and life. Both soloist and conductor share a special musical relationship, immediately demonstrated in his understanding with her from the opening bars all the way to the end. There are special moments in the first movement where Vonk pays careful attention to Meyer’s pauses to allow her to display her full dexterity and clarity, say when she is playing in the lower registers. He allows her phrasing to breathe and give life to, while supporting her orchestrally. Her tone from the start is always clear and I find the word “perfection” actually the most correct superlative to describe this sound she produces.

Mozart did not in fact write a clarinet concerto but was actually writing for the basset clarinet. The work thus actually goes beyond the normal low range of a modern clarinet. When Sabine Meyer recorded this work in 1991, she thus opted for the “original” basset clarinet. The notes in the sleeve point out that “no further doubt [was possible] when musicologist Ernst Hess discovered excerpts from Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung from March 1802 that the basset was the instrument used”.

While I have enjoyed many of Mozart’s woodwind concertos – for flute, bassoon, and oboe – the one that appeals to me most is the Clarinet Concerto. The work is full of intricate arpeggios, runs and ornaments, and not forgetting the sudden shifts in registers between high and low followed by trills – all this makes for a really exciting experience. Somehow the special voice gives much room for introspection and thought for the soloist.

Mozart The second work in this album is the Sinfonia Concertante for solo clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn (not the famous violin and viola partnership). One important point worth noting is that Mozart composed concertos for each of these instruments and was successful in all of them – thus with great insight this partnership is equally exciting.

This work’s history is full of rumours. Apparently Mozart had angered one Giuseppe Maria Cambini, a composer, who later made every effort to prevent this concertante from being performed. The work also underwent many changes despite Mozart having the entire work in his mind (with his phenomenal memory – it is said he had “two symphonies in his memory” at any one time). It is also said that Mozart replaced the flute with the clarinet and that he even re-wrote the entire work after finding out that it had somehow come out sounding like the work of another composer.

Mozart’s music often gives you a particular sense of what is forthcoming: even if one suddenly stops halfway in a phrase, it would not be difficult to anticipate what is to come – such is the quality of Classical music. However it is his ability to compose in and around a particular phrase in different variations that makes his music a marvel to listen to and this is particularly audible in the Andantino con variazioni. Sabine Meyer may be the main star playing but one never gets the impression that she is trying to hog the limelight or take pride of place – something which makes the quartet-like playing a joy to listen to. And of course Mozart makes much out of the interplay between individual instruments to allow each performer to show off.

Well, this series boasts many important landmark recordings and I am glad that EMI has picked this relatively recent recording as one of them – highly recommended.

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Johann D’Souza has taken to vegetarian cooking lately and professes that he is feeling much more calmer, cooler and is even losing weight…

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