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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 26 (1808) [19.59]
Potpourri in F major on themes from Winter's Das unterbrochene Opferfest, Op. 80 (1811) [9.47]
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 57 (1810) [24.36]
Variations in B flat major on Euer Liebreiz, eure Schönheit from Spohr's Alrana, WoO15 (1809) [7.41]
Michael Collins (clarinet)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Robin O'Neill
rec. Örebro Konserthuset, Örebro, Sweden, 24-28 May 2004
HYPERION CDA 67509 [62.22]

This is a most enjoyable program of colorful, appealing, relatively unhackneyed music. That said, it inadvertently demonstrates why posterity, hasn't judged Spohr a first-rank composer.

The composer seems undecided whether the C minor Concerto should be a virtuoso display vehicle or an expressive, dramatic piece; for a Mozart, of course, integrating the two contradictory impulses was no problem. First we encounter a dark, turbulent introduction, extending the classical operatic style forward into Beethoven's harmonic language and orchestration. The clarinet then enters with an achingly wistful lyric line - the sort of thing Spohr did particularly well. Almost immediately, however, the phrase dissolves disconcertingly into noodling figurations that, though impressive, serve to undercut its expressive power. This aesthetic schizophrenia pulls the movement now this way, now that. After the first movement's Sturm und Drang, the central Adagio, animated by a simple cantabile impulse, seems unambitious. The jaunty closing Rondo is fun while it lasts, but it peters out abruptly.

The E flat concerto of just two years later offers markedly more assured results. Lyrical solo lines unfold and blossom freely, setting up the showy bits nicely, and making for a compelling sense of drama in the first movement. The composer finds room to innovate, both formally and texturally, within the standard concerto structure. Thus, the soloist "answers" the orchestra in the second phrase of the opening ritornello, after which the orchestra continues normally, without further interruption. The clarinet begins the pensive Adagio in its low chalumeau register, a neat and unexpected timbral and theatrical touch. As the lines finally ascend, the effect suggests dawn breaking.

The Potpourri and the Variations posit no conflict at all. These are display pieces, pure and simple. As always, the clarinet writing is fluent and idiomatic, with the passagework in the Potpourri successfully deployed for expressive purposes.

All of these pieces make considerable demands on the soloist's digital dexterity and breath control, and Michael Collins comes equipped with a formidable technical arsenal. There is a distinctive, and not unpleasant, throatiness to his midrange sound, yet he soars easily and fluidly above the staff, where the squillante brilliance never crosses over into an unpleasant squeal. Two particularly breathtaking passages stand out. One is a seamless series of trills about eight minutes into Op. 80. The other comes at 4:34 in the Second Concerto's first movement, where sinuous melodic embellishments open out into a series of descending arpeggios, cascading magically one upon the next, all realized in perfect, liquid tones.

A resonant recorded ambience lends the sound of the smartly disciplined Swedish Chamber Orchestra a welcome heft, but it also causes some congestion in tutti; and the perspectives are inconsistent. The soloist is distinctly over-miked in the First Concerto - throwing off the first movement's give-and-take with the orchestral reeds - and in the B flat variations. He sounds more naturally highlighted - to coin an oxymoron - in the other works.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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