LEFÈVRE Clarinet Quartets: No. 1 in E?; No. 2 in B?; No. 3 in C; No. 4 in c • Eduard Brunner (cl); Ana Chumachenco (vn); Hariolf Schlichtig (va); Wen-Sinn Yang (vc) • TUDOR 7136 (56:36)
Swiss-born, French-assimilated composer Jean Xavier Lefèvre (1763–1829) was a highly regarded clarinet virtuoso who, in his capacity as instructor of the instrument at the Paris Conservatory, taught a number of prominent students, among them Bernhard Crusell. He also authored what was perhaps the earliest clarinetRead more tutorial, the Méthode de clarinette, in 1802, and he also improved the versatility of the instrument by adding a sixth key. It seems, though, that he was already behind the curve and resistant to innovations occurring around him for, by 1815, Iwan Müller had added another seven keys for a total of 13, and had made significant modifications to the key pads, advances that Lefèvre rejected as causing too radical a change in the clarinet’s tonal quality.
But progress waits for no one. Between 1839 and 1843, two French instrument makers, Hyacinthe Klose and Denis Buffet, collaborated to adapt Theobald Boehm’s flute fingering system to the clarinet; thus, before mid century, the clarinet had essentially achieved its present-day form. Admittedly, many of the virtuoso showpieces for the instrument by composers such as Weber, Spohr, Reicha, Baermann, and the aforementioned Crusell, were written during a period of flux in which the clarinet was undergoing rapid evolution but had not yet reached its modern state. Though specific dates of composition for the four quartets on this disc are not given—the booklet note suggests shortly after the turn of the century—they were almost surely written prior to any of the cited noted improvements in the clarinet’s design and flexibility. Fans of period instruments may therefore be dismayed to learn that these are modern-instrument performances, and that at present there are no alternative recordings of these works listed.
If we posit a date of 1801 or 1802 for these pieces, which seems a reasonably educated guess, they fall almost exactly between Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet of 1789 and Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 of 1811. Both the chronology and Lefèvre’s being the clarinet virtuoso he was unite to fit the style of the music to a tee. Nothing adventurous in terms of melody, harmony, or formal construction jars one’s expectations, but the technical writing for the instrument is something else, throwing down the gauntlet of virtuosic challenges that would be picked up by Weber a decade later.
Mozart had already demonstrated how compatibly the clarinet partners with strings in chamber music, as Brahms would do again just over 100 years later. If Lefèvre’s clarinet quartets don’t rise musically to these heights, they amply reinforce the harmoniousness of the combination. Of course, given Lefèvre’s personal mastery of the instrument, it comes as no surprise that these quartets don’t just favor the clarinet; they treat it as the diva among three supporting characters, the effect being almost to transform the music into solo concertos with string accompaniments.
Eduard Brunner’s reputation as one of the world’s leading clarinetists is definitely vouchsafed by this recording. His partners surely earn their merit badges too, but in parts not nearly as technically challenging as Brunner’s. His breath control, smoothness of tone, and finger and tongue dexterity are quite remarkable. Enjoyable music, superbly played, and expertly recorded, this release is strongly recommended.