Boris TCHAIKOVSKY (1925-1996)

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1957) [13:46]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Première rhapsodie (1910) [8:34]
Petite pièce (1910, orch. Müller) [1:56]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 74 (1810) [23:34]
Matthias Müller (clarinet)
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, Moscow/Mischa Damev
rec. Radio Studio Moscow, October 1998
NEOS 20905 [48:13]

Matthias Müller is an accomplished clarinetist, adept and (literally) lightfingered in Weber's virtuoso flourishes, bringing real zest and a touch of humour to the busy high lines of Boris Tchaikovsky's finale. But, rather than any particular tonal distinction, it's his exceptionally alert rhythmic address that stands out, making for unusually cohesive, tautly knit performances of even the ruminative, rhapsodic Debussy pieces. The mysterious, exploratory opening of the Première rhapsodie incorporates plenty of spontaneous-sounding give-and-take. The textures start to blossom at 3:47, and the soloist's alertness pays off in a bracing final buildup. Müller performs the Petite pièce with his own orchestral realization of Debussy's original piano accompaniment; it's clean and shiny, though it misses the nuance and variety of the composer's own palette.

I'd not previously been familiar with Boris Tchaikovsky's music: I only knew the composer's name as a distraction, while I was looking up "the" Tchaikovsky in the old record catalogues. His Clarinet Concerto falls easily on the ear, drawing on a number of recognizable influences. The first movement begins with the soloist unfurling spacious, wistful lines over patient triplets, with the strings and clarinet switching roles at 2:23. Prokofiev and Copland are close at hand; so, occasionally, is Menotti (think the waltz from Sebastian). The second and third movements, which share a single track here, are Neoclassical in style. In the Vivace, the clarinet tootles away over pizzicatos and such; the vigorous, driving Allegro bustles cheerfully along. Trumpets, introduced as support at 4:09, take an obbligato role at 5:55; in the home stretch, tympani punctuations are a shock.
It's odd to find the Weber in this company - his concerti usually travel in pairs, like nuns - but its sturdy traditionalism makes a nice foil to Debussy's elasticity and Tchaikovsky's comparative spareness. Müller is deft in the dazzling runs and curlicues, and Mischa Damev's attentive, supportive conducting becomes more characterful. The opening ritornello is forthright and ceremonial; later, the conductor effectively sets off the scurrying soloist against a weightier orchestral sound. The Romanza plays, at times, like an operatic scena, notably beginning at 4:43.

The orchestra, unsurprisingly, sounds most at home in the Tchaikovsky, although the Vivace's unison string interjections don't all sound completely in control. The bass strings sound a little light, but provide sufficient support for the sonority in tutti. The woodwind chorales in Weber's Romanza are more characterful, if less pure, than most.

The sound is fine. In the Weber, the acoustical overhang becomes conspicuous in the rests after full chords, but it doesn't interfere with detail anywhere. Recommended for the performances and the repertoire.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

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