"Whatís in a name?" Thus spake the immortal
Bard, putting those famous words into Romeoís mouth. Into mine too,
as it happens. Itís a cracking question, and one on which I ponder
increasingly in these sad days of rampant political correctness.
Musically, I sometimes get to wondering whether J. S. Bach would
have been so famous now, had his name been just plain, ordinary
"John Brook". This was never going to be a problem for
Mozart, even after he became just plain, ordinary "Wolfgang
Amadeus". Even if it had become a problem, he had in
reserve the mouthful with which his dear old Mum and Dad had him
baptised: Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.
Mind you, when you consider the quality and quantity
of their "product", and especially the jaw-dropping
consistency of it all, who gives a proverbial "monkeyís"
what were their names? If proof were needed, look at the contents
of this CD. The late Clarinet Concerto is considered by
many to be from the upper reaches of Mozartís top drawer, whilst
the rather earlier Flute and Harp Concerto is rated somewhere
in the middle of the "socks and pants (pending laundry)"
drawer. Yet, when you listen to the two works in tandem, the supposed
gulf between them nowhere near rivals the Grand Canyon.
That is more than I can say for the yawning chasm
between the packaging and presentation of your "average"
CD and this one. It all looks very promising: a
tastefully muted cover illustration, and a swish cardboard outer
box. Yet it starts to seem a bit extravagant when you slide out
the contents - a standard jewel-case bearing exactly the
same illustration and text, on the front, the back, and the edges.
The extravagance suddenly acquires the ludicrous proportions of
an Imelda Marcos shoe cupboard when you pull out the "booklet"
- a single, unfolded slip of glossy paper which is - wait for
it! - completely blank on the back. It might seem a silly
question, but it has to be asked: if youíve money to burn, why
spend it on a cardboard box which serves only to protect a jewel
case which itself serves only to protect the CD? Why not instead
splash out on something really useful - like a booklet note, for
Please forgive me for banging on at length over
what might seem a small point. There are quite a few discs from
this source reviewed on Musicweb, and comments on this matter
range from the mildly irritated to the pretty pungent. The extent
of my irritation is considerably in excess of pretty pungent.
The thing is, this isnít just a cheapskate "bargain issue"
ploy after the manner of the Fafner-majors when they first woke
up to Siegfried-Naxos, and itís not just a matter of wasting money
on providing pre-prepared packages for "pass the parcel"
party games. No, itís selling the customer - especially the obviously-intended
"newcomer" - a long way short. From what I can gather,
"Classic Collection" is part of the Brilliant Classics
setup, whose presentation seems to be, in the main, fairly acceptable.
However, that serves only to make this deplorable state of affairs
even more unacceptable, so Iíd say in no uncertain terms to anyone
from the company who might be reading, "This just is not
Now Iíve got that off my chest, what about the
contents? The entire CD has been lifted bodily from "The
Mozart Edition, volume 1" (Brilliant Classics 99713). The Flute
and Harp Concerto seems to be a recording originally issued
on Hyperion (CDA 66393, 1990), whilst the Clarinet Concerto
is currently available on AVRO Classics (c/w Horn Concerto
No. 2 and Flute Concerto No. 1), the first volume of
a Mozart series by the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam under Lev Markiz.
My main yardstick for measuring performances
of "classical" repertoire could be summed up in the
word "cleanliness" - cleanliness of line, cleanliness
of attack, purity of tone, moderation in all things. I frown as
much on a performance of a classical work that is invested with
robust baroque rigidities as I do one that wallows in romantic
blubbing and bombast. In between is a golden mean, a balanced
line thatís hard to define but, breaking the burgeoning poetic
sequence, when I hear it I feel my ears sit up and beg!
Happily, the moment this CD went on, all the
gripes about the presentation went right out of the window: the
playing in all departments and from start to finish is nothing
short of delightful. The Clarinet Concerto in particular
oozes those qualities that bring me out in a rash of classical
goosebumps. The tempo in the first movement is just right: fast
enough, but not so fast that the fizzing, whirring "inner"
lines Mozart injects into the accompaniment start to sound even
the least bit blurred. The orchestral articulation, so clean you
could eat your dinner off it, conspires with a no-nonsense steady
pulse to push the music purposefully onwards. Restrained, barely-sensible
touches on the brake and gas pedals ensure a smooth and satisfying
ride. To my mind, this is the very model of a classical performance,
and itís a performance that is repeated with identical sensitivity
in the other two movements.
All very nice, but what about the soloist? Just
who inspired whom I canít tell, which is also just how it should
be. This clarinet sounds gorgeous: bright and fluting up top,
black as liquorice in the basement, both blending seamlessly into
a creamy middle - and all as clean as a whistle. Harmen de Boer
presents a nigh-on perfect foil for the orchestra: poised, agile,
elegant and modest - thereís none of that "You fellows
play quietly while I stand in front and show off" nonsense.
You can hear every note, from both soloist and orchestra, for
which some of the credit must go to the recording crew, on this
issue disgracefully anonymous. I speak with immense authority
- entirely because itís not that long since I heard this piece
at a real, live concert - when I say that this is one of the most
naturally balanced concerto recordings Iíve ever come across.
Reputedly, Mozart was not particularly fond of
either the flute or the harp, yet in the Flute and Harp Concerto
he gives us the distinct impression that he was well aware - yonks
before Ravel! - of what a truly exquisite combination they make.
As Iíve mentioned, on this CD, the recordings of the two concertos
come from completely different sources. Thus we have not just
a necessary change of soloists but a complete change of personnel
including, other than by some sheer fluke, recording producer
and engineers. It makes surprisingly little difference.
The harp, which can make its presence felt through even a massive
symphonic eruption, is curiously reticent as a solo instrument.
Consequently balance engineers have to place it well forward,
which is what happens on this recording. For consistency, the
flute is parked right beside it, giving a feeling of a more immediate,
close recording than that of the Clarinet Concerto.
However, Les Violons du Roy are by no means lost
in the background. Moreover, they give a remarkable imitation
of the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam, while Bernard Labadie seems
to pull off a convincing emulation of Lev Markiz. Donít get me
wrong: Iím not suggesting that this is actually imitation
and emulation, rather that their clean-lined, no-nonsense yet
sensitive and vital playing resonates sympathetically with that
of the Amsterdam ensemble. In short, they make excellent bed-fellows.
Giselle Herbertís harp is glitteringly well fingered,
and Marc Grauwelsí flute warm-toned and pliant, but not over-endowed
with vibrato (itís only likely to offend die-hard authenticists).
The solo instruments blend and contrast well, a pleasing complement
to both one another and the accompanying band.. Again we find
tempi and tempo variations kept within what I like to think of
as sensible bounds. The slow movement in particular, with its
neatly-pointed distinction of staccato and legato phrases, is
right on the button as far as being "andantino" is concerned.
I became aware of a distinct crescendo about 3 minutes in - had
this sort of extravagant effect penetrated from Mannheim to Mozart
already? Iím not sure, but no matter - itís all done in the best
possible taste. In the cadenza the soloists allow themselves the
minor indulgence of some comparatively - no more than comparatively,
you understand! - wild gear-changes.
The finale sets off briskly, but not so quick
that it trips over its own feet - the musicís inherent elegance
is never put even remotely at risk. Heard first on the harp, the
main theme is a delight, and there are lots of nifty dynamic touches
to keep you cheerful - the mind as well as the ear is well-tickled
here. Well, it needs to be: this concerto is fully 27 minutes
long! It got me to thinking that if this is "sub-standard"
Mozart, then Iíd probably be fairly content even with his third-rate
stuff. All this, and that mouth-watering performance of the Clarinet
Concerto as well. Maybe, just maybe, I can overlook that barren
packaging. Just this once, mind you.
As a footnote, if you think the lack of liner
notes is an impediment to your enjoyment, then think again! You
can hoick some notes off the web. For the Flute and Harp Concerto
you could do worse than refer to my programme note at www.musicweb-international.com/Programme_Notes/mozart_flhrpconc.htm,
and for the Clarinet Concerto try looking up what is a
very good note by R. G. Bratby at www.classicalnotes.co.uk.