I'm not often enticed by cover art, but I have to admit this one did it to me. Seeing that big basset-clarinet up close to a normal clarinet was so fascinating (having never seen one in person) that I had to give this disc a try. And Mark van de Wiel, being the principal clarinet of the Philharmonia, sealed the deal.
And it's a bit of a mixed bag, I'm afraid.
Beginning with the Phibbs Concerto, I read in the wonderful booklet that it was written for (along with a "creative friendship" with) our soloist. It was premiered with the Philharmonia in November 2017 and this recording was made shortly after. And what a wonderful, fresh, energetic creation it is! It is structured in an ambitious 4-movement layout and is expertly and colorfully orchestrated. The first two movements are very reminiscent of Copland's more famous clarinet concerto. Yet it possesses such a unique voice (and colorful orchestration) the Copland flavor simply brought smile after smile while listening. Then with the Adagio, and especially the finale, Phibbs establishes a more original and secure individuality. While the preceding is decidedly American-esque, the remainder sounds firmly French. The Adagio often reminds me of Henri Tomasi (specifically his glorious saxophone concerto), while the finale takes it another daring step further into the realm of Connesson, with its dazzling virtuosity for both soloist and orchestra.
The playing here is simply fabulous. This is a studio recording but sounds for all the world like a live performance, with its effortless spontaneity and unbuttoned exuberance. There is a sense of occasion and an ever-present feeling of new discovery. It is also spectacularly recorded, with the orchestra given thrilling presence.
The Mozart, unfortunately, is not as satisfactory. It was recorded "live", with a different orchestra in a different hall. It is well played and the London Chamber Orchestra is incisive and alert. But there is a touch of the routine in Mr. van de Wiel's playing. But what spoiled it for me was his propensity for showing off those low notes of his basset-clarinet. He honks them out with unnecessary force, disrupting the melodic line and sounding quite out of character for Mozart. I guess I should have expected such ostentation, given the cover art; but Mozart's glorious score must still be given top priority. I suppose signum classics might be partly to blame, as the soloist is very closely mic'd. However, the sound of his clarinet overall does not strike me as outrageously spot-lit throughout the rest of its range. And on another live recording from signum of this same concerto, from the wonderful Julian Bliss, there is none of this honking in the low notes. That entire performance is eminently more musical and natural. Perhaps van de Wiel leans in toward the mic as he plummets down to those lowest notes. Or maybe he's trying too hard to fill the hall with sound. Who knows. Regardless, it left me annoyed. And the rapturous applause which instantly erupts at the end is something I certainly could have done without. (Signum had the good sense to edit it out on their live recording for Bliss.)
This disc is worth it for the glorious Phibbs concerto. But if your main interest is with the Mozart, I'd turn to any number of other recordings of that - none better than the aforementioned Julian Bliss. The one from Martin Frost on BIS is also satisfying.
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