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Clarinet Classics at Riversdale
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet Quintet in B flat, op. 34/J182 [28:32]
Miklós RÓSZA (1907-95)
Sonatina for Clarinet, op. 27 [9:49]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Ręverie orientale [6:44]
Erland von KOCH (1910-2009)
Monolog 3, for Solo Clarinet [5:49]
Heinrich Joseph BAERMANN (1784-1847)
Adagio from Clarinet Quintet no. 3 in E flat, op. 23 [5:01]
Willson OSBORNE (1906-79)
Rhapsody for Clarinet [4:27]
Robert DiLutis (clarinet)
Mellifera Quartet
rec. 2017, Riversdale House Museum, Riverdale, USA
DELOS DE3561 [60:22]

There is a danger that this will be one of those releases which are done a certain disservice by the circumstances of their conception and the way these circumstances are marketed. The “Riversdale” of its title will, I suspect, mean nothing to most people outside Maryland. It is in fact a fine early nineteenth-century house – pictured three times in the CD’s booklet – in which Robert DiLutis and others have been organizing seasons of chamber concerts since 2012. The disc’s presentation and packaging make you feel that its prime target audience is probably those who have attended concerts there. In fact, however, the programme it offers is much more than an appealing souvenir. Its six items constitute a most desirable, indeed unique, anthology of works written for solo clarinet or clarinet quintet between 1811 and 1975. These include several rarities (notably the pieces by Rósza, von Koch and – outside the USA at least – Osborne). Together they make a surprisingly coherent programme. The extent to which the issue has the potential to enrich collections, housed many thousands of miles from Maryland, is demonstrated by the fact that (as far as I can tell) no two of the works it presents have ever before appeared on the same CD – with the sole exception of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet and Baermann’s “Wagner Adagio”.
DiLutis and his colleagues begin their concert with an appealing performance of Weber’s great Quintet. It is, as DiLutis himself says, “for clarinettists a dream come true”, and he is both thoroughly in control of its technical demands and well aware of its expressive possibilities. The performance might, I think, be appropriately described as affectionate, not least because of the element of backhandness; that compliment tends to imply with regard to slowish tempi – at least, here, in the first two movements. Perhaps the highlight of these players’ account is their take on Weber’s miraculous menuetto, capriccio presto (whatever precisely he might mean by that), which is as perky and characterful as you could wish for. DiLutis’s tone is consistently lovely, evenly and seemingly effortlessly produced. At times one feels his quartet’s performance is not quite on the same level (ensemble isn’t always perfect, and there can be a certain squareness of phrasing); but this performance of the Weber won’t disappoint anyone and will give a great deal of pleasure.
Given the plethora of higher-profile and sometimes cheaper options, however, no-one is likely to buy this disc for the Weber alone. Rather, the main interest – at least for those who have no connection with Riversdale House Museum – will probably lie in the half-hour or so of music that follows it. This sequence involves three pieces for solo clarinet, effectively punctuated by two more in which DiLutis is again joined by the Mellifera Quartet.
The real discovery for me was the rather forbiddingly named Monolog 3 by the exceptionally long-lived Swedish composer Erland von Koch. Written in von Koch’s mid-seventies, this is a two-movement piece for solo clarinet that packs quite a punch into its six minutes. The idiom is somewhat old-fashioned for its period but Koch writes for the clarinet with real eloquence, a sense of atmospheric mystery, and no little profundity of feeling. The over-used term ‘Nordic noir’ came to mind whilst listening to the piece, and I was not surprised to read afterwards that von Koch was responsible for the music of quite a few Ingmar Bergman films. A rather better-known film composer was of course the one-time Hollywood fixture Miklós Rózsa (“The Jungle Book”, “Ben Hur”, “A Double Life”). Robert DiLutis again perhaps runs the risk of underselling his product when he begins his note on Rózsa’s Sonatina for Solo Clarinet (1951) by asserting that “if you love film scores, then you will love the music of the exceptional Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rózsa”. Well, to my ears at least the Sonatina doesn’t sound anything like music written for Hollywood. Indeed it seems to have been a hallmark of Rózsa’s career that he was able successfully to compartmentalize his film and concert music – though, as with von Koch, the ten-minute Sonatina manages to pack a good deal into a small space. This is a skill which perhaps indirectly reflects the experience of working within the pressures and constraints of the film industry. No, this Sonatina is very much Hungarian music from the school of Bartók or – perhaps more accurately – Kodály. Its first movement is a set of variations on a beautifully long-breathed, folk-inflected theme, whilst its second is an authentic (or at least authentic-sounding) Central European dance in the “gypsy” style. Both technically and expressively, Di Lutis does wonders with the piece – as indeed he does with the musically less interesting 1952 Rhapsody by Willson Osborne with which the disc concludes. Maybe because it was originally written for bassoon, or maybe simply due to a relative dearth of melodic invention, this work made less impact on me than the other five. Indeed, the decision to end the disc with the Osborne struck me as the only questionable one in what is otherwise a thoroughly well-constructed programme. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. On a sixty-minute disc room might perhaps have been found for a more rousing finale? Or maybe, more simply, Rózsa and Osborne might have changed places?
My – of course objectionably pretentious – suggestion for re-ordering the material would also have had the effect of juxtaposing Osborne’s Rhapsody not with Baermann, but rather with Glazunov’s early (1886) Ręverie orientale. These two pieces have a certain commonality in that they are both, in different ways, exercises in orientalism. As DiLutis states, Osborne’s work “is rooted in an ancient Asian method of expanding a short melodic fragment” – a device which occasionally put me in mind of, say, Holst’s Beni Mora, with the difference that the latter piece of course relies on straightforward repetition as well as on development. Glazunov’s orientalism is, by contrast, more thematic, indeed political in character – reflecting, like the music of so many late nineteenth-century Russian composers, the creative if slightly self-conscious tensions involved in trying to do justice both to the Eastern and the Western cultural traditions that surrounded them. Think Ippolitov-Ivanov, or indeed Borodin, whose Prince Igor was still unfinished when Glazunov wrote his “Ręverie”. At times, indeed, this piece recalls the style of Borodin’s String Quartets, though with a discernibly higher sugar-content – exacerbated here, for me at least, by the fruity width of the leader’s vibrato.

I have left to last the only other piece, apart from the Weber, which could claim to be at all well known. It’s the Adagio that we now know forms part of Heinrich Baermann’s Clarinet Quintet no. 3 in E flat, but that for a long time circulated separately under the erroneous title “Wagner’s Adagio”. Well, I suppose you can hear anticipations in it of, say, the “Siegfried Idyll”, but an innocent ear coming to the piece would for certain identify its composer as Weber – albeit, perhaps, a slightly less inspired and considerably more melancholy Weber than the one who penned the Clarinet Quintet. That latter work, and the two Clarinet Concertos, were of course written for Baermann to play. It’s a little cheap, but probably accurate, to suggest that Baermann was almost certainly a finer clarinettist than composer – it was after all ‘de rigueur’ at the time for noted virtuosi to try their hand at creating pieces for their instrument. But the Adagio has a good main tune and is never less than enjoyable and affecting. It needs to be in any decent collection of clarinet music. As, indeed, do most of the pieces recorded here.

DiLutis is a superb player, well worth hearing, and – whether by accident or design – his disc fills quite a significant gap in the catalogue of solo clarinet recordings. I’d advise overlooking the slightly parochial packaging and focusing instead on the repertoire you get for your money. It may not all be absolutely first-rate, but it’s all interesting and worthy of repeated listening. Recommended then, to anyone who enjoys beautiful clarinet playing and would relish exploring even a little beyond the standard repertory for the instrument.

Nigel Harris

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