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Michel YOST (1745-1801)
Clarinet Concerto no.12 [21.13]
Clarinet Concerto no.14 [18.40]
Clarinet Concerto no.6 [16.54]
Johann Christian VOGEL (1756-1788)
Symphony in D major [16.16]
Susanne Heilig (clarinet)
Kurpfälziches Kammerorchester/Marek Štilek
rec. 2017, Epiphaniaskirche, Mannheim-Freudenheim
CPO 555 191-2 [73.17]

Once upon a time I thought the clarinet concerto sprung fully-formed from the brain of Mozart in October 1791, with a few suggestions from Anton Stadler, who was a bit keen on the basset clarinet. Around 20 years ago I had a rude awakening when I bought the Arte Nova disc Mannheimer Schule Vol.2, which featured clarinet works by Carl Stamitz written some ten years or more before the Mozart (even including one for a basset horn or alto clarinet). It turns out that Mozart’s was just the best in a long line of clarinet concertos. Incidentally, I see, that volumes 1-5 of that Arte Nova series are still, surprisingly, downloadable from Presto Classical (74321373272).

The aforementioned disc and the one currently before us feature the Kurpfšlziches Kammerorchester, the chamber orchestra of the Electorate of the Palatinate, which sounds as if it might date from the time of Prince Elector Carl Theodor of Mannheim (1724-99) but was actually formed in 1952. I’m pleased to see it’s still going strong, and is a much classier group than it was in 1995, when the Arte Nova disc was made. The jury is still out, however, on whether it is the equal of its forbear, that Palatine Court Orchestra which Charles Burney described as “an army of generals.”

Stamitz later went to Paris, where Johann Joseph Beer worked with him and also taught Michel Yost. It appears Yost was a big star in the Paris of the 1780s; according to the interesting booklet by Elisabeth Schmierer, he was one of no fewer than 50 clarinet virtuosos, and almost as many composers of clarinet concertos.

A considerable number of Yost’s concertos, however, were actually written with the help of composer Johann Christoph Vogel which is why his interesting three-movement D major symphony also appears on this disc.

And so to the Yost-Vogel Clarinet Concertos 12 and 14. They’re traditional classical concertos, though perhaps with longer than usual orchestral introductions and very short cantabile second movements (that of 14 is even described as “Romance”), ending in a rousing rondo. They were designed to entertain a bored Paris audience with fireworks, and they still work – without ever achieving the originality or depth of a Mozart.

The Clarinet Concerto number 6 is rather a different animal. It’s obviously earlier, and instead of being a three-movement classical concerto like 12 and 14, it is a two-movement work derived from the symphonie concertante. The clarinet is even more prominent, with the orchestra merely a background; maybe the recording doesn’t help, but the spotlight is always on the solo instrument.

The clarinettist is the experienced Susanne Heilig, who plainly enjoyed these works. They can’t be terribly familiar to her – this is their first recording, though other Yost clarinet concertos are available. But she plays them with affectionate confidence and a full, focused tone, skipping and chirping through the rondos. There’s very little clatter from the keys.

She is partnered by conductor Marek Štilec, whose recordings of orchestral works by Fibich were among MusicWeb International’s Recordings of the Year for 2013 and 2014. He also conducts with vim and vigour Vogel’s D major symphony. This opens with typical eighteenth-century scurrying strings, goes on to feature some lovely wind melodies, and turns to the darker side for a dramatic ending. It’s very attractive, though of course it was written after Mozart had been to Paris and showed them how to do it.

One thing I’d love to know; how did Yost and Vogel split the profits between performer and composer? I think I can guess.

Chris Ramsden

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