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Franz KROMMER (1759-1831)
Concerto for two clarinets in E flat Op.91a,b (1815)
Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Clarinet Concerto No. 4 in E minor WoO 20a (1829) (ed. Gerhard Ewald Rischka)
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E flat Op.57b (1810)
Sabine Meyer (clarinet)a; Julian Bliss (clarinet)b
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Kenneth Sillito.
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, September 2006. DDD.
EMI CLASSICS 3 79786 2 [72:40]



Artists and composers at various times have masqueraded under or been forced into aliases. Poor old Domenikos Theotokopoulos found the Spanish unable to pronounce his name and had to be content with being known in a rag-bag of Spanish and Italian as El Greco, ‘the Greek’. In the Renaissance it was fashionable to have an Italian name, thus the English composer John Cooper preferred to be known as Coprario; later, a Latin name was fashionable, so Michael Schultze or Schultheiss became the better-known Prætorius. Later still, French was fashionable, so Ludwig Spohr became the Louis Spohr of the credits for this CD.
 
The other composer here, too, suffered a name-change: in a German-speaking world, the Stamič family had to become Stamitz and František Kramář had to change more radically to Franz Krommer.
 
Neither Spohr nor Krommer is particularly associated with the clarinet. If anything, Spohr’s name is more usually associated with violin concertos and he is said to have admitted that at first he wrote for the clarinet as if it were a violin before he realised the limitations of the instrument. Krommer is perhaps best known today for his wind-band Partitas. The concertos on this CD are usually described as transitional between the Classical and early-Romantic periods, though even the most striking, Spohr’s fourth concerto, written four years after the death of Beethoven, is not exactly revolutionary for its time. The second concerto at times sounds more like the galant style of the late eighteenth century.
 
The booklet notes refer to the heavier scoring of the fourth concerto and its long brooding introduction but these are relative terms: in no way can this introduction be compared with the intensity of, say, middle- or late-period Haydn, let alone with Beethoven. In fact, when the clarinet enters in this first movement the mood is wistful rather than brooding, thereby approaching something of the quality of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. The three downbeat Masonic chords which open the work may, in fact, be a tribute to his long-dead fellow freemason.
 
To compare all these concertos, however, with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto or even his Clarinet Quintet is to realise the gulf which separates the great from the good. Whether or not Salieri ever uttered the words placed in his mouth in Amadeus (incidentally, not a name which Mozart ever used of himself, though he did use the Italian equivalent, Amadeo) music did seem to pour out of him in a manner almost impossible to analyse. Salieri’s music, like that of Krommer and Spohr, is very workmanlike – and unjustly neglected – but that is the point: we may admire the workmanship while feeling that, given the right training, perseverance and a following wind, we might conceivably have produced something like it ourselves. Spohr is especially craftsmanlike – his Octet and Nonet remained the largest-scale pieces of chamber music for a long time; they are both cleverly-written, imaginative and attractive – but they are hardly in the same league as Schubert’s wonderful Octet. Not first-rate music, then, but the concert repertoire would be very thin if we restricted ourselves to the very best. Certainly this is a well-filled disc of attractive music, very well performed and recorded.
 
This is music intended to ‘show away’ as the idiom of Krommer’s and Spohr’s English contemporaries would have had it: the Spohr concertos were written for the virtuoso clarinettist Hermstedt and the soloists are well up to the task of making such difficult music sound easy. Both soloists are young, though Sabine Meyer has already made quite a reputation for herself in a wide range of music from Mozart to Goehr. Her 1990 recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto has already achieved the status of one of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century, coupled with the Sinfonia Concertante K497b, a CD which earned the enthusiastic approval of Don Satz on this site in November 2003 (5 66897 2). For those who have yet to add these Mozart works to their collection, this performance on the basset-clarinet would make an excellent choice in a crowded and distinguished field. Here she plays with aplomb the solo part in the meatier of the Spohr works, the Fourth Concerto, and partners Julian Bliss in the Krommer double concerto, while Bliss contributes the solo role in Spohr’s second concerto.
 
Dubbed in some quarters the Wayne Rooney of the clarinet – for his talent and looks and not, I am sure, for any negative reasons – Bliss is also already something of a veteran; just seventeen when this CD was made, he had already appeared in the Queen’s Jubilee concert in 2002 and played at the Proms. His EMI Debut album was well received. Reviewing his performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at the Festival Hall in 2004, Alex Russell on this website described Bliss as a consummate musician of astonishing maturity, all this at the age of fifteen. His playing in both the Krommer and Spohr’s second concerto is fully the equal of the more experienced Meyer’s; in no sense are EMI or his more mature partner just doing him a favour in allotting him a concerto all to himself. Had I not seen the details in the booklet, I honestly could not have said whose contribution was which.
 
In the Krommer, where the two clarinets sometimes dialogue with each other and at other times weave arabesques around each other, Bliss’s playing is fully the equal of Meyer’s. In the Spohr second concerto’s aria-like Adagio he really captures the mood of this languorous song-without-words, while in the spirited Finale he brings the house down (or would, if this had been a live performance!) I wondered at first at the wisdom of playing the more mature fourth concerto before the second, but the rousing ending justifies the decision and also, perhaps, explains why Hermstedt seems to have preferred the second concerto to the fourth.
 
The Academy under Kenneth Sillito offer their usually excellent support, allowing the soloists just the right opportunity to shine, though the brief opportunities given to orchestral soloists to come forward, for example in the introductory section of the first movement of the Krommer, are not missed. The effectiveness of the accompaniment is enhanced by a recording which gives the clarinettists just the right degree of prominence without sounding too forward. It was one of the qualities of the great Thomas Beecham that he managed to make lesser music sound great; it is a measure of all those who have contributed to this CD that they achieve something of the same effect.
 
The booklet of notes is more than adequate, though it does not explain why a special edition of Spohr’s fourth concerto was considered necessary or what changes it entails. I cannot imagine that they were very considerable, since the timings for all three movements of this concerto closely match those on Ottensamer’s Naxos recording referred to below.
 
Meyer and Bliss may be young and photogenic, but EMI seem to be overdoing things by presenting them three times – on the cover, on the rear of the booklet of notes and again visible behind the transparent tray. Surely, one photograph inside the booklet would have been enough with, perhaps, an early-nineteenth-century painting on the cover. Do EMI think that an in-your-face depiction of the artists like this helps to sell the CD? More restrained covers seem not to deter purchasers of Naxos CDs, but then they do have a high price advantage, too.
 
Mention of Naxos leads inevitably to the fact that there are recommendable versions of all these concertos on that label, though not coupled as here. The Krommer comes on 8.553178, combined with other Krommer concertos, whilst the two Spohr works, coupled with a short Fantasia, are on 8.550689. I have not heard either of these but Ernst Ottensamer’s Spohr CD has received particular praise. Both Naxos CDs could be bought for less than the price of this EMI disc, but I cannot imagine that anyone who purchases the new CD is likely to feel short-changed. If you buy the EMI recording and like what you hear, you could go on for a small further outlay to try the two other Spohr concertos on Naxos 8.550688. Your next stop could then be Ottensamer’s versions of the Weber Clarinet Concertos and Concertino on Naxos 8.550378, a CD for which I can offer a personal recommendation. Actually, I think the Weber concertos are better music than either the Krommer or the Spohr, but that’s a whole different story …
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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