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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A major KV 622
Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major KV 299
Harmen de Boer (cl.), Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam/Lev Markiz
Marc Grauwels (fl.), Giselle Herbert (hp.), Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie
rec. Musiekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, 1994
Licensed from AVRO (1-3)
CLASSIC COLLECTION 99823 [54'26]
"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 instance?

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 on!"

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.

Paul Serotsky



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