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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Cohler plays and conducts Weber
Clarinet Concertino in E flat Major, Op. 26, J109 (1811) [9:23]
Clarinet Concerto No.1 in F Minor, Op. 73, J114 (1811) [19:45]
Clarinet Concerto No.2 in E flat Major, Op. 74, J118 (1811) [20:54]
Der Freischütz Overture, Op. 77, J277 (1821) [9:57]
Oberon Overture, J306 (1825-1826) [9:16]
Polonaise brillante for piano and orchestra, Op. 72, S. 367, J268 (1819) (arr. Franz Liszt, 1851) [10:31]
Rasa Vitkauskaite (piano) (Polonaise brillante)
Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra/Jonathan Cohler (clarinet)
rec. 1, 3-4, 6 September 2015, Budapest, Hungary
ONGAKU 024-126 [79:46]

Distinguished clarinettist Jonathan Cohler is a regular with Ongaku. His other eight releases with this label include one with the Claremont Trio where his enthusiasm, verve and panache have already garnered special praise (review). Amongst much else there is an American recital and a Schumann/Prokofiev/Guastavino collection (review). A welcome feature on the present disc is the presence of another musician familiar to anyone who follows this label: the pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite.

The concept of this well-filled disc is a good one. Single composer discs start out with an advantage. Among Cohler's albums this site has reviewed and welcomed Cohler on Clarinet where this player's signature sound was praised for its particular aptness to Weber's Grand Duo Concertant. His distinctive agreeably grainy and searching tone serves to remind listeners that this is a woodwind instrument. Cohler is the conductor throughout - a doubling role also taken on by clarinettist Michael Collins in his rather shorter duration Weber concerto disc for Chandos.

The 'problem' of how to build a well-rounded Weber disc in which the principal focus involves the clarinet concertante works is solved here by adding two of the most famous Weber overtures and the Polonaise Brillante. There is no direct competition for this configuration. A range of different answers have been found for discs in which labels have sought to supplement the three clarinet works. There is a world of clarinet concertos from this and related eras but some have gathered in other Weber works: Collins on Chandos with the Horn Concertino, Meyer on EMI with the Clarinet Quintet and Arrignon on Quantum, the Bassoon Concerto.

The Concertino and the two Concertos have Mozartean grace; they certainly do in Cohler's hands. The Concertino belies its diminutive 'handle' with unsettlingly Beethovenian fury to contrast the bubbling ardour. The orchestra's belligerent tempest often fines down to a feathery silken sound. Striking attention is paid throughout to differentiation of dynamics. The two Concertos are flighty, tenderly - even searchingly - pensive and caringly delicate. These are very thoughtful readings - listen for example to the affecting tenderness brought to bear in the slow movement of No. 2. It's a credit to all concerned that these recordings reflect back a carefree liquid innocence uncompromised by the gymnastic fireworks, sparkling kindling and exuberant virtuosity. These works stand as worthy successors to the Mozart but add sturm und drang and a strong infusion of bel canto. The romantic element - pre-echoes of Schumann and Berlioz - also comes across with fiery tension and beguiling delicacy in the two overtures. There the significant clarinet role is taken by the orchestra's principal Gábor Varga who is handsomely acknowledged in Cohler's liner note. Vitkauskaite's plangently played Polonaise brillante - as arranged by Liszt - is a spirited and aristocratic jeu d'esprit carried off with style.

In his case for dispensing with the more commonly encountered Bärmann editions Cohler not merely favours looking away from that late-romantic overlay. For example he rejects Bärmann's ornamentation of Weber's originals especially where the original line as written by Weber is already ornate. If he embraces a more pristine approach to Weber this is not applied puritanically. Cohler says in his generously proportioned liner essay that he "adds his own ornamentation, articulation and cadenzas in accordance with principles that I believe Weber followed." The results are not, to my non-specialist ears, radically different from what I take to be the predominant norm but they are certainly very pleasing.

The Lithuanian-born Rasa Vitkauskaite, who is the pianist of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, provides a two page note, for the Weber-Liszt Polonaise brillante. Her writing is equally in-depth yet approachably rewarding. I should add that the booklet is in English only.

Cohler's Ongaku discs have in common his welcome liner-essays. "Essay" is not too grand a word either. This one, very much in the encyclopaedic Toccata Classics tradition, is admirably printed in a sensible font, black on a white ground. It runs to no fewer than seventeen purposefully filled and factually concentrated pages. Both Cohler and Vitkauskaite are informative, considered and frank. Their writing complements the full-on recording and the brilliance of the music-making.

Rob Barnett



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