Great Works for Clarinet
It was Mozart who felt that the clarinet was closest to the human voice, and in both his sublime Quintet and Concerto it entered music history as a fully-fledged soloist. A wonderfully versatile instrument, its refined, mellow tone has proved as expressive in the purest Classical works as it has in ravishing Romanticism and raucous jazz.
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K581
We owe much to Anton Stadler, a Viennese clarinet virtuoso who inspired Mozart's lyrical Quintet masterpiece from 1789, and the Concerto that followed two years later. While in the Concerto the clarinet is the diva, the magic of the Quintet lies in the inspired interweaving of voices, with violin and clarinet often echoing each other. A spell-binding larghetto makes a serene centrepiece – its long-breathed melody from the clarinet as touching as any of Mozart’s great arias – while the first violin provides the sobbing and sighing asides. A neat, dancing theme flowers into ever-more intricate, high-spirited variations to close this gem of a piece.
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Although this is the earliest major concerto written for the clarinet, it remains one of the finest. Mozart seems instinctively to have grasped the instrument’s potential as a spinner of limpid melody, and exploits the contrast between its throaty lower register and silvery treble. Following the sunny Allegro, in which the soloist’s graceful theme sets up an irresistible conversation with the orchestra, the simple, arched melody of the beautiful Adagio is probably still the most famous clarinet melody ever written.
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115
Brahms had declared himself retired, and 'firmly decided to write nothing more', until Richard Mühlfeld’s liquescent clarinet playing in the Meiningen Court Orchestra proved a fresh muse. The Quintet aches with autumnal melancholy, and its sweet opening Allegro, with the clarinet rising miraculously from out of the cello’s shadow, soon turns impassioned. The expansive, meditative Adagio is disrupted at its heart by the clarinet’s wild, improvisatory arabesques, drawing on the Hungarian gypsy style. Plunging and soaring, there’s more than a hint of desolation here, which then gives way to the flowing calm of the Andantino.
Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114
Though less well-known than the Quintet, Brahms’s darkly passionate Clarinet Trio was composed during the same summer and was, in his opinion, its equal. While the Quintet revels in blending sounds, the Trio relishes the contrasts between piano, clarinet and dusky cello. After a sombre opening movement, the miraculous Adagio floats into being with clarinet phrases falling like summer dusk, its harmonies offering poignant consolation. After a graceful Andantino comes a finale as tempestuous as anything Brahms wrote. Mühlfeld also inspired two magnificent Clarinet Sonatas, which are fortunately squeezed on to this recording.
Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto
Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Big Band that he accepted an invitation to write for them, and his crisp, asymmetric signature is palpable from the first bar of the resulting Ebony Concerto. There is little of the 'big band' swing to its tight, jerky syncopations despite the patter of drums and piano riffs, although it reeks of 1940s atmosphere with its rasp of trumpets and honky-tonk piano.
Copland: Clarinet Concerto
This famous concerto was commissioned by Benny Goodman and reflects the jazzman’s creative flair... but also the sounds of Rio, where Copland was staying at the time. Its opening movement is suffused with bittersweet longing and unashamed nostalgia. The clarinet soloist enters high on the instrument, setting out the wide-open sonic vistas beloved of Copland, and goes on to shape soulful melodies with leaping intervals. A toe-tapping second movement driven by Brazilian dance rhythms and a street song, offers the soloist plenty of scope for comic posturing and pace-setting in a series of delightful exchanges with sections of the orchestra.