The mechanical improvements to the clarinet happily coincided with the Romantic movement at full bore. With a nearly four octave range providing a wealth of tone colours as well as the ability to traverse the complete chromatic scale, it is little wonder that this single-reed instrument fired the imaginations of composers eager to add the passion of the wordless voice to their instrumental compositions.
Carl Maria von Weber most certainly found the evolving instrument to be a perfect match for his deeply personal style—being schooled in the possibilities by virtuoso clarinetist and friend Henrich Baermann resulted in some of the most expressive compositions ever written for the instrument.
The artistic trust at Bridge Records has made a fine decision by bringing clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein together with conductor Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra to record the three orchestral showpieces for the wily instrument. The deft combination of technical fireworks, extreme range and bel canto capability have lured audiences of all backgrounds into the magical web of high drama and enticing melodies that are Weber’s hallmarks.
There is so much dance throughout the works (the “Alla Polacca” from Op.74 being the most obvious example—there are many more sprinkled elsewhere), that having the accompaniments directed and performed by those whose daily bread involves dancers of the first rank pays off handsomely: the tempi are universally ideal and their collective empathy with the soloist is palpable.
For Fiterstein, the biggest challenge is to find a reed flexible enough to dart about the frequently shifting ranges, allow rapid-fire staccati and support long, liquid lines of lingering phrases and myriad expressions of the human condition. With a virtually flawless technique most assuredly in place, the biggest task at hand is mining the music in every measure.
And to a very large extent he does.
The “Allegro” of the F minor concerto is a marvel of shared commitment and superb breath control. All that remains is the ability to lead more convincingly through the ever-crucial half-steps of the soaring melodic lines. The following “Romanza” is lovingly crafted; perhaps a tad more support just prior to the daunting changes of register would add to the aura of gentle tranquility. Curiously, the tied note of the “Rondo’s” principal subject is not truly sustained in the first iteration, reducing the effect of its saucy syncopation, but that is soon remedied—as if the opening night jitters were quashed—and then it’s a merry ride through to the double bar.
West and the orchestra serve up the exposition of Op.74’s “Allegro” with a perfectly crafted sense of the heroic events that are about to unfold. Tightly rendered grace notes only add to the marvellous sense of drama. Not quite as controlled and placed are the tutti offbeats which are a nickel short of razor sharp. Once again Fiterstein gains confidence with every passing bar and displays a wonderfully nuanced cantabile in the extensive legato sections. Without a doubt the “Romanza” is the most consistently satisfying movement of the disc, featuring sensitive collaboration, abundant hues and a spectacularly rendered last hurrah, setting a new standard for others to attempt to match or, perhaps, surpass.
The above reservations aside, “Alla Polacca” is full of zest, a stunning bit of silence and a final flurry that delivers a truly heated conclusion.
a final flurry that delivers a truly heated conclusion.
Weber’s Concertino suffers initially from a straggling first chord, yet all is forgiven as Fiterstein magically slips into frame and artfully sets the stage for the variations and finger-testing escapades that lie ahead. While there is much to admire by all parties, if more chances were taken in the solo line and if the accompaniment would discover that less is more—particularly the execution of arid eighths and quarters—then this performance would move up a notch from very good to great.
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, Op.73
Karl Leister, clarinet
Rafael Kubelik, conductor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 13650
This 1968 recording more than stands the test of time. Leister was fortunate indeed to have Kubelik at the helm: the orchestral contributions are chockablock full of bravura, exquisite phrasing and operatic drama of the highest order. Few others then or now can induce shivers from string tremolo. The fabled clarinetist—save and except for a few unwelcome key slaps and a somewhat curious breath plan—digs deep into the subtext and finds musical gold with virtually every phrase. Repeated notes are never the same, the sense of direction seldom in doubt. The slow movement’s treacherous French horn calls to return to the haunting theme is deftly punctuated by flesh-laden pizzicati that deftly prepare the way for an exquisitely fond farewell. Who knew that Finale could also be infused with delectable dashes of coquetterie—reading between the lines indeed. JWR