I was a piano player back in the day, and all through my college years I used to accompany lots of instrumentalists and vocalists. And I did it for free (!) - simply because I loved it so much. And also because it was fascinating attending their private lessons and masterclasses and hearing each of them perform in recitals and competitions. I learned an inestimable amount about wind instruments and vocal techniques, and differences in interpretation - knowledge which has been invaluable to me as a musician throughout my life.
I say all this to bring up a point. I played some of the same music so often, for so many musicians, that I eventually got to where I could hardly bring myself to hear it any more. Sadly, such was the case with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Everybody played it - some in A, many in Bb, and I learned it in both keys and played it everywhere they all did - competitions, recitals, etc. - not to mention all the rehearsals. And after a while, I cringed anytime someone wanted to play it. (Just like a close photographer friend who worked at countless graduation ceremonies said he got to where he couldn't stand hearing Pomp and Circumstance March). Similarly, it was years before I could bring myself to listen to a recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and decades before I truly began to love it again. (The same goes for his Flute Concertos as well, for the same reasons. There were gaggles of flute players where I attended college - all of whom played the G Major at some point, most of them accompanied by me.)
And now, some 40 years later, I do love this music again. More deeply than ever. But it takes a special performance/recording to make it happen. In Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, I especially appreciate those which utilize the extended range basset clarinet, as that was something I never experienced back in college. So it is always new and interesting for me now.
I can count on one hand the number of recordings of this marvelous concerto that I truly love. The rest - ehh. Many sound so routine and uninspired, I simply don't have much patience for them. But every once in a while, a recording comes along which conveys such unalloyed joy, I find myself enraptured in the music all over again.
And such is the case with this CD from French clarinetist Romain Guyot and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on Mirare. And even though it is not notated on the front or back covers, Guyot does indeed play the basset clarinet in both the Concerto and the Quintet, making these recordings even more special.
It is astonishing this release, recorded in 2013, is already 10 years old and I am only just discovering it - and quite by accident at that. I learned of this clarinet player from his participation in two chamber music recordings I have enjoyed - a Farrenc collection on naive and Mozart/Beethoven Octets with the Octuor a vent Paris-Bastille on harmonia mundi. So when I spotted his name playing Mozart's Concerto and Quintet on Mirare - a label I admire - I snapped it up. And what a find it is!
As mentioned above, it is the joy in Mozart which I treasure the most in recordings of his music, and it is bountiful here. In the Concerto, which comes first on this program, the (conductorless) Chamber Orchestra of Europe instantly ushers in a joyful, articulate and delightfully phrased exposition. Guyot follows suit with a freshness and outright joy which are rarely encountered, especially on a studio recording. There is a naturalness here which is refreshing. There is no musical point-making, or unnatural emphases intruding on the music - just pure musical inspiration, with a singing quality permeated with spontaneity and new discovery.
Guyot's playing is in an exalted class, featuring a gorgeous, wooden tone, singing legato and a stunning dynamic range - replete with exquisite pianissimos played with breathtaking control and radiance. And mercifully, he doesn't honk those lowest notes of the basset clarinet as so many players just can't help themselves from doing.
Further, Mirare provides superb recorded sound in both works. Every time I encounter this label, I am impressed mightily. And this one is no exception. Whether it's in the Concerto, with full orchestral forces at play, or in the intimate chamber setting of the Quintet, the sound is focused, colorful, dynamic and warm, within a natural, spacious acoustic. The clarinet is never bright or dark, nor is it spotlit by the microphones. It's just realistic, natural and full of expressive color.
And what an involving and captivating experience this Quintet is! It is one of the most vibrant, heartfelt and engaging performances I have heard. The strings, all principal players from the COE, are simply wondrous. The opening phrase is stated with simple elegance at a tempo just ever so slightly quicker than usual, followed by the clarinet's joyous response, bringing a striking freshness. The 3rd movement, similarly a hair quicker than usual, positively springs from the page with infectious exultation. And in the final Theme and variations, there is endless variety and some truly exciting passages as well.
The playing is exquisite, a quality which persists throughout. The group plays as one, with a unified expression. And, significantly Guyot does not play at all "soloistically". He blends beautifully with the strings, becoming an equal, 5th player. Yet his vibrant tone sings resplendently from within the musical fabric. And just as in the Concerto, the music-making is infused with joy, spontaneity, singing lyricism and lively dynamics, with perfectly judged tempos.
Along with the irrepressible joy in Guyot's playing, there is another quality he brings - more notably in the Concerto - which is also a feature I enjoy in another favorite recording of the work from Sabine Meyer, in her first recording with Hans Vonk (1990, EMI). That is the use of embellishment. Guyot incorporates it judiciously, always stylish and tasteful in its usage. Similar to Meyer, it springs forth in moments where the joy - which simply cannot be contained - literally bubbles out of the musical fabric with a little flourish, or an ornamentation, or quick trill. It is never ostentatious or pretentious; it's always within the context and spirit of the music, and exists merely to enhance the joy brimming along the surface. There is a printed interview with Mr. Guyot in the booklet in which he equates ornamentation with a "beautiful woman wearing jewelry". Listening to him play, that's exactly how it comes across. Mozart's music is so beautiful as written, but a touch of ornamentation simply adorns it further.
Other favorites of the Concerto include the aforementioned Sabine Meyer (1990, EMI) and, perhaps not coincidentally, her one-time student, Julian Bliss (2014, Signum Classics) leading the pack. There's also an exquisite one from Martin Frost on BIS (his first one in 2003, not the redundant remake), and an enjoyable one from Michael Collins (and again, it's his earlier recording in 2013 for Chandos with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, NOT the later one for BIS.)
It's odd that many clarinetists would re-record this concerto for no apparent reason, with nothing particularly new to say, and with predictably inferior results. I could understand the reasoning if the first outing wasn't particularly successful, but it's baffling why anyone would attempt to try it again (tempting fate!) when it was so marvelous the first time around.
It's also peculiar that many of them fail to bring the same level of excellence to the Quintet as they do to the Concerto. Meyer, Bliss and Collins are all conspicuously disappointing in their recordings of the Quintet (all recorded separately from the Concerto). All 3 produce readings which are too relaxed and curiously lacking the very qualities which make their playing of the Concerto so memorable (joy, spontaneity, inspiration). Martin Frost, though, on his 2003 BIS recording, is quite glorious - and his is logically coupled with the Concerto, as is Guyot's.
Guyot rises to the top of the list in this music for all the qualities noted above. That he couples both these works in equally magnificent performances is rare, making it all the more treasurable.
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