The basset-clarinet is not to be confused with
the basset-horn, though they are closely related. The
latter is really a type of alto clarinet, midway between the
normal clarinet and the bass, while the former is simply a clarinet
with an extension downwards of several semitones, for which
Mozart is believed to have conceived the two great masterpieces
on this disc.
Specific differences to the normally heard
versions of the works are not that noticeable, though they are
in fact quite numerous; in the first movement of the quintet,
for example, there is the passage of quaver figuration in the
clarinet part that starts at 5:36, where several of the lowest
notes would be outside the range of the clarinet. Similarly,
in the concerto, there is the section at 2:58, where once again,
notes lower than the normal range are heard. There is a pleasing
logic in all of these adjustments, and they in no way alter
the familiar course of the music.
On the other hand, the tone that Jean-Claude
Veilhan produces may be less acceptable to many ears. There
is no doubting that he is an accomplished and highly musical
player, but his basset clarinet has a slightly throaty quality,
and doesn’t sing with the mellifluous ease that modern ears
are used to. Tone is not as even, either; one is occasionally
slightly uncomfortably aware of shifts in register. For me,
this was not a great problem, but others may find it so.
Certainly the music is given performances of
great character. Tempi in the quintet are on the brisk side,
though the larghetto retains its tranquillity, and the
menuetto has the benefit of an urgent sense of forward
movement. The concerto suffers from a rather idiosyncratic recording.
The acoustic is boxy, and the microphone(s) is(are) very close,
with practically no balance distinction between soloist and
orchestra. This takes a bit of getting used to, but I found
it grew on me, especially as the quality of playing in the small
accompanying ensemble is generally of high quality. More worrying
is the seeming clumsiness of the basset-clarinet as compared
with the clarinet. Many passages of intricate figuration sound
distinctly awkward in Veilhan’s hands, detracting from the elegance
of the work. I don’t believe that this is lack of sensitivity
or technique on his part, however, more in the nature of the
longer, heavier instrument.
But these are performances worth hearing, if
only for the unusual experience of the instrument for which
this music was originally intended.