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Fire and Magic

Richard Stoltzman's
'Phoenix in Flight' -
recommended by

'... meltingly beautiful ...'

Phoenix in Flight - Richard Stoltzman. © 2008 Navona Records LLC

Richard Stoltzman and Kirk Trevor have compiled an interesting and nicely balanced collection of works for clarinet and orchestra from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Just a few composers made major contributions to the clarinet repertoire in its first century: Mozart, Weber and Brahms created almost all that is worthwhile. The situation improved markedly with the French impressionists but the soloist's choice is still not wide. Here we have two of Carl Maria von Weber's concerted works, Concerto No 2 and the Concertino, and three works which are much less well known -- two of them, in fact, will be new to most listeners.

Weber's Concertino opens the programme. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra starts with a bang, then stands back to let the soloist take the stage:

Listen -- Weber: Concertino
(track 1, 0:00-1:10) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

The Concertino has an unusual structure, comprising the slow introduction, a first movement marked 'Andante' which builds excitement by subdividing the beat without changing its underlying pulse, a brief recitative which does duty as the slow movement, and a brilliant finale:

Listen -- Weber: Concertino
(track 1, 9:40-10:26) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

The Concerto is longer and more orthodox in form. Both have been recorded countless times. I will not pretend to have heard all of the alternatives but Stoltzman gives us fine performances here, ably supported by Trevor and his Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. They tend more toward the full-blown Romantic style than I would normally like but they make such a good case for it that one can't complain.

Giovanni Bottesini was a nineteenth century virtuoso -- no, the nineteenth century virtuoso -- of the contrabass. He suffered dreadfully from lack of showpieces so, as virtuosi did in those days, he wrote them himself. Stoltzman brings us his Duetto for clarinet, contrabass and orchestra -- musically undistinguished but great fun. The clarinet gets slightly the better of the contest but the contrabassist (Richard Fredrickson) acquits himself well.

Listen -- Bottesini: Duetto
(track 2, 6:26-8:11) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

It is almost the same length as Weber's Concertino, as is the Debussy which follows it.

Stoltzman says of Debussy's Première Rhapsodie that it was 'the very first piece of classical music that I fell in love with when I was in high school' but that he then had to work through its technical obstacles before being able to see it again as a 'simply beautiful piece'. Those obstacles are far behind him now and his performance validates his opinion of the work. It is Debussy at his colourful, sensuous, charming best.

Listen -- Debussy: Première Rhapsodie
(track 3, 4:58-5:43) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

The disc closes with what could look like a mere encore to the sparkling Weber Concerto: Herbstlied ('Autumn Song') by Tchaikovsky is the shortest item at just under five minutes, but it is so meltingly beautiful in this arrangement by Toru Takemitsu that it creates its own space and mood. It was written for clarinet and string quartet but the fuller sound of orchestral strings suits it well.

Listen -- Tchaikovsky: Herbstlied
(track 7, 0:00-0:54) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

Most listeners will regard Weber's fireworks as the highlights of the disc but the Debussy and Tchaikovsky won my heart. As I said, it's a nicely balanced programme.

Copyright © 17 March 2009 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia



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