Phoenix in Flight
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra in C minor/E flat major, J.109/Op.26 (1811) [10:30]
Giovanni BOTTESINI (1821 - 1889)
Duetto [9:59]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Première Rhapsodie (1910) [9:18]
Carl Maria von WEBER
Clarinet Concerto No.2 in E flat major, Op.74 (1811) [25:01]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Herbstlied (arr. Takemitsu) [4:41]
Richard Stoltzman (clarinet); Richard Fredrickson (double-bass) (Bottesini)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
rec. May 2002 (Rhapsodie and Concerto No.2), May 2003 (Concertino), May 2005 (Duetto) and June 2005 (Herbstlied), Bratislava, Slovakia

When I listened to this collection, my first thought was - how singular Richard Stoltzman's clarinet sound is. It is not soft and flat, as some clarinets can be. This sound is very convex, energetic, with high vibrato, very youthful and confident, very concentrated. The technique is perfect: one can forget that the clarinet is a wind instrument, so assured is the breathing. Still ... something is missing: I would say - grace. The album is called "Phoenix is Flight", but this flight involves a lot of muscle work; there is little of the free soaring one would expect.

The program is a mixed bowl. Between two Weber works there is a Duetto for clarinet and double-bass by the little-known Bottesini which you probably have never heard before, and Debussy's Première Rhapsodie which is stylistically very different from the rest. An arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Autumn Song (from The Seasons) serves as a peaceful encore. I can't see what holds these pieces together besides the performer. So imagine that you attend an all-Stoltzman concert. Probably I am missing some implication of the disc title - but I am missing it.

Between Mozart and Brahms, it's probably Weber who did the most for the clarinet. His Concertino does not follow the standard 19th century concerto pattern. Its structure is closer to a bel canto aria. First there is a slow, heavy introduction (the overture to Don Giovanni comes to mind), then the animated, elaborate cabaletta, ending in a fast bravura part. Busoni's cadenza is nice, but seems to lose the pace.

Bottesini was a great double-bass virtuoso, so he had to write something for himself, since nobody else did. Maybe the Duetto sounded more balanced in its initial form for bass and violin. Between two such different voices as clarinet and double-bass, the problem of balance is inherent. Probably it cannot be done better than on this recording - still, the clarinet easily grabs the stage. We are not used to a double-bass singing in its high register. It does this like a sore-throat cello so there are some comical impressions which were hardly intended by the composer. Remember dancing elephants from Saint-Saëns' Carnival? The piece is good for one hearing, but its musical content does not really justify repetitive listening.

Première Rhapsodie, on the contrary, is a wonderful creation, full of Debussy's magic. You can approach it either as an impressionistic orchestral work with clarinet obbligato - or as a work for clarinet with orchestra - a kind of a mini-concerto. Stoltzman follows the latter approach. It makes sense, since the work was originally a competition piece for clarinet. Still, it seems that some of the delicate layers of Debussy's tone-writing are lost behind the clarinet, which is very prominent. Again, it could be more graceful. Still, the result is very colorful.

Weber's Second Concerto does not come naturally after Debussy. However, it is very well played. The dreamy second movement is surely one of the high points of the disc. Its melancholy is hushed, beautiful melodies reach the heart, long notes and trills captivate. It brings to mind some of Mozart's slow movements. The framing parts are more Rossini-like, cheerful and daring. Stoltzman's virtuosity is dazzling.

Another unnatural jump - to Tchaikovsky's autumnal elegy. The clarinet sound is beautiful. The arrangement by Toru Takemitsu is very faithful to the original, carefully shadowed. But I do not feel the due melancholy in the music. The nocturne turned into a concert aria.

The recording quality is excellent. The orchestra backs the soloist perfectly, and is wonderfully sensitive in Debussy and in Weber's slow movement. The liner-notes are not especially generous; still, they give us two interesting personal looks: of Stoltzman on the pieces, and of the conductor, Kirk Trevor, on his good friend Stoltzman. The disc also contains PDF files of the clarinet parts.

The overall feeling I got is: yes, this is great clarinet playing. Such range, such ease! But it's more for the sake of clarinet playing than for the sake of the music itself.

Oleg Ledeniov 
Great clarinet playing - for the sake of clarinet playing ... see Full Review

see also review by Bob Briggs