Notes and Editorial Reviews
Allegro in B?,
K Anh. 91 (2 versions)
Wolfgang Meyer (cl); Eisler Qrt
AVI 8553216 (66:12)
A strange case, this. One would expect that a CD whose cover and spine read “MOZART/WEBER/BLISS Clarinet Quintets” would include the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. The back of the cardboard gatefold case, however,
tells a slightly different story: what Avi actually gives us is Mozart’s quintet fragment in B?, in versions completed by Franz Beyer and Robert Levin. It gets stranger, though: On checking ArkivMusic for recordings of the Bliss Quintet, I came upon the listing for this CD, and the cover photo given there reads “WEBER/BLISS Clarinet Quintets”! Perhaps someone at Avi realized that the original text was misleading, and changed the cover; but, in an apparent act of overcompensation, any reference to Mozart is completely eliminated from the listing.
On the actual CD, the two versions of the Mozart bracket the Weber. Mozart’s manuscript breaks off three measures into the development section; the exercise of “completing” the fragment thus involves composing the better part of the development and the entire recapitulation, although of course the latter for the most part can be constructed in parallel to the exposition. A further confusion arises, however: The version credited here to Levin (track 6) is in fact the score as edited by Beyer and published in 1993 by Edition Kunzelmann; it seems likely, then, that Avi has switched the attributions. In any event, both realizations work quite well; Levin (i.e., track 1, listed as Beyer) includes a chromatic “purple patch” in his recapitulation, while Beyer’s is less speculative; Beyer, for his part, appends a coda based on the opening theme, something Mozart did frequently, although the use of a new triplet figuration in the clarinet part seems odd here. In neither case, however, is it obvious to the ear exactly where the Mozart leaves off and the musicology begins. A third version by Duncan Druce has also been recorded by Alan Hacker on period instruments; Druce employs the device—based on Mozart’s own practice in the completed Clarinet Quintet, K 581—of switching voices so that the clarinet states the first theme in the recapitulation. The one unfortunate thing about the present recording is that, while the piece was clearly written for Anton Stadler’s extended-range “basset clarinet,” Meyer plays a standard modern instrument, so several passages cannot be played as written. Since Mozart’s manuscripts of the Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto, K 622, are lost, this autograph score, along with Sesto’s act I aria from
La clemenza di Tito
, take on a greater importance as, I believe, the only extant examples of Mozart’s writing for Stadler’s instrument.
As for the rest of the CD, the quintets of Weber and Bliss couldn’t be less alike. Weber’s, of course, is a virtuoso showpiece with sly intimations of true chamber music (the opening, for example, gives no hint of the fireworks to come); the Bliss, written in 1931 as a tribute to the composer’s brother, who had been killed in World War I, is very much of the English pastoral school. Even the second-movement Allegro molto, referred to in Eva Blaskowitz’s notes as “a grim scherzo reminiscent of Shostakovich,” is rather gentle in comparison to the Russian composer’s dark ironies. This work is the highlight of the disc: Meyer, the second-most-famous clarinetist in the family—his sister is Sabine Meyer—has a dark, pleasing sound that suits this music well, and both he and the Eisler Quartet, yet another group of top-notch young European string artists, play with complete assurance. I haven’t heard the recordings of the quintet by English clarinetists David Campbell, Janet Hilton, or Nicholas Cox, but the 1935 recording by Frederick Thurston, for whom the piece was written, is uniquely authoritative, and currently available on both Testament and Clarinet Classics.
Meyer’s performance of the Weber quintet, on the other hand, strikes me as disappointing. Meyer is not really a flamboyant player, and the quick tempos result in the impression—perhaps unfair—that he is working at the edge of his technical command. The slurring of many passages that are often tongued, and the thinning of Meyer’s tone in the
register, only reinforce this impression. This version is no match, then, for those of David Shifrin (Delos) and Jon Manasse (XLNT), neither of whom ever plays faster than he can play beautifully. Shifrin is a bit more expressive—he makes the Trio of the Menuetto third movement into something truly gorgeous—while Manasse’s overall sound may be slightly sweeter. Both offer Weber’s complete clarinet chamber music on a single disc, and both are treasurable.
The present release scores points for its enterprising program; the Bliss quintet is hardly basic repertoire, at least outside Great Britain, and Mozart’s fragment may be slight, but any nugget from his last years, especially involving his favorite wind instrument, is a small gem. Only the Bliss, however, gets an unqualified recommendation.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
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