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Franz CLEMENT (1780-1842)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major (1805) [37:24]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor (after 1806) [33:58]
Mirijam Contzen (violin)
WDR Sinfonieorchester/Reinhard Goebel
rec. 2018/19, WDR, Funkhaus, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Köln, Germany
Reviewed as lossless download
SONY 19075929632 [71:22]

There have already been a number of well-regarded Beethoven releases in his anniversary year, and there will undoubtedly be more. There have also been the huge boxsets released by Warner, DG and Naxos (review). Nonetheless, I think there will be many music lovers whose shelves and/or hard drives are already groaning under the weight of their existing Beethoven collections, and who might be more interested in those composers who shared the stage with the great one, either influencing or being influenced by him. This Sony series, titled “Beethoven’s World”, aims to explore just that. Four releases have been announced for 2020, this being the first.

Franz Clement was a child prodigy with the violin, wowing audiences from the age of eight in a city that a generation earlier had been astonished by Mozart. At the age of 20, he was appointed concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien orchestra, and quickly made it the best in the city. It was Clement to whom Beethoven turned for the premiere of the Eroica symphony in 1805, an occasion at which Clement also played his first concerto. The critics didn’t appreciate the Beethoven, but praised Clement highly. When Beethoven wrote his violin concerto the following year, it was at the request of Clement. Further, Beethoven acknowledged his non-idiomatic knowledge of the solo violin by leaving some of the solo parts incomplete or with options, requiring Clement to make a significant contribution to what has become one of the greatest works of the repertoire. Clearly, Clement was to Beethoven as David was to Mendelssohn and Joachim to Brahms.

It is not surprising that Beethoven found much in Clement’s first concerto to inspire him in the writing of his own. Of course, Beethoven was a genius, so he what does is an order of magnitude (or three) beyond. At more than 37 minutes, the Clement is a very substantial work, and as with most lower rank composers, there isn’t quite enough material to sustain it. At some point in each movement, your attention wavers, whereas with the Beethoven, you will either think it is perfect as is, or wish that there was even more. This is the Clement’s second recording, the first being by Rachel Barton Pine (review) some 12 years ago. Both are very accomplished, the most significant difference being a slightly faster tempo adopted in this new recording: it is over three minutes faster, enough to give a little more forward impetus, especially helpful in the passages where inspiration is flagging.

The second concerto, of which this is the first recording, followed Clement’s premiere of the Beethoven, and if Beethoven was influenced by Clement’s First, then Clement seems to be paying homage to Beethoven here. The structure (dominated by the 20+ minute opening movement), scoring (an important role for the timpani) and the overall atmosphere make this almost feel like a work that Beethoven discarded because it wasn’t up to his exalted standards. I realise that sounds a little (or perhaps a lot) demeaning to Clement, but it is Beethoven we are referencing. Take the genius out of Beethoven and you get just about everyone who has ever put pen to stave. So let’s not try to make comparisons with the incomparable. This concerto, like the first, has much to enjoy - many lovely passages, plenty of drama, a virtuosic solo part - but again like the first, Clement doesn’t have the creative spark to completely fill the structure. I particularly enjoyed the final movement Rondo. The informative booklet notes, written by Reinhard Goebel, suggest that these works are a break from the past, having no trace of Haydn or Mozart, and I am hardly in a position to argue with such an august musician, but I hear echoes of Mozart’s late minor key piano concerto and symphony in the orchestral accompaniment in the first movement.

Reinhard Goebel will apparently be the constant in the Beethoven’s World series, and he is an interesting choice. I associate him with the Baroque era, and some wonderfully energetic Telemann and Heinichen. Here with a full symphony orchestra at the dawn of the Romantic era, his direction is assured and stylish with the perfect balance of forward momentum and stillness. Soloist Mirijam Contzen has recorded the Mozart concertos with Goebel on Oehms Classics (review); this is my first time hearing her, and I am suitably impressed. The second concerto was recorded in concert, but the applause at the end has been removed, and the audience that night was on its best behaviour. Sound quality is very well balanced between soloist and orchestra.

This was a personal purchase, as the CD did not find its way to MWI earlier in the year. I’m very glad to have done so, though I did feel a little shortchanged by having to spend $3 more on the download than the CD would have cost. Of course there was no postage and I didn’t have to wait ages for the package to make its way to New Zealand, especially with the much reduced air freight systems at the moment.

In short, if you have an interest in the development of music during Beethoven’s time, this is essential listening.

David Barker

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