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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A major KV 662 (1791) [27:55]
Symphony No. 35 in D major KV 385 “Haffner” (1782) [20:58]
Don Giovanni KV 527 (1787) – Overture [5:54]
The Magic Flute KV 620 (1791) – Overture [6:36]
rec. 2018, Budapest, Hungary
Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra/Jonathan Cohler (basset clarinet & conductor)
ONGAKU 024-128 [61:22]

Just over an hour of some of Mozart’s greatest music played and conducted by one of the world’s most distinguished clarinettists obviously makes for an attractive prospect. The disc comes in tandem with a publicity release sheet from the Ongaku label featuring encomia from the likes of American Record Guide, BBC Music Magazine and Fanfare Magazine, where it has no fewer than seven adulatory reviews from different reviewers – all of which would seem to make my little two-pennyworth redundant up against such a concerted (if you’ll forgive the pun) and unequivocal endorsement – and I would hardly bother were I not writing the first review for MusicWeb.

Nonetheless, I have some very slight reservations. First, I find the tempi in all three movements of the Clarinet Concerto to be bordering on the brisk, as if intended to showcase the undoubtedly phenomenal dexterity of the soloist. Occasionally, I would like Cohler to take more time over the most beautiful phrases; comparisons with previous, favourite versions confirmed my observation, especially with regard to the Adagio; however, such is the beauty of Cohler’s tone, the fluidity of his legato and delicacy and elegance of his ornamentation of the repeats that such objections might seem otiose. The deep, throaty timbre of his basset clarinet brings special pleasure. The instrument is very forwardly balanced – surely rather more so than one would experience in the concert hall, but this is a recording after all, and not the same thing.

Secondly – and here I admit to a certain curmudgeonliness – I am emboldened to observe that the programme, though thoughtfully constructed, consists of frequently-recorded works. Of course, it is wonderful music but we already have so many superlative accounts of the items on offer that I wonder whether a slightly more adventurous selection might not have been made. Never mind, the playing is superlative and Cohler proves to be as gifted a conductor as he is a soloist.

The playing of the symphony could hardly be more pointed or spirited; every movement is ideally delivered and the performance culminates in a thrilling, bubbling, prestissimo finale just as Mozart wanted. Its vivacity forms quite a contrast with the brooding menace of the Don Giovanni overture which immediately follows it. Here again, the tempo of the slow D minor introduction is just a little too pressed for my taste to maximise the contrast between it and the Allegro D major exposition but the execution is flawless. The introduction to the Zauberflöte overture is imposing, bringing out its hieratic grandeur then the fast section scurries feverishly before the brass interjection calls proceedings to a halt – and off we go again. Vibrato is minimal but there is no whining or sliding and intonation is impeccable.

The notes by Cohler himself are voluminous and informative – so much so that the fat booklet – in English only - just fits with difficulty behind the plastic lugs, and overall the presentation is attractive.

Old hands will already have their favourite versions of these works but as an introduction to them, this compilation could hardly be bettered.

Ralph Moore

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