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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622

Louis Spohr
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major, op. 57

Jon Manasse, clarinet; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony
Review by Wayne Donnelly

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  Completed shortly before his death, the serenely contemplative Clarinet Concerto is the loveliest of all the composer's wind concertos. The best reason to acquire this CD is soloist Jon Manasse, whose fluent virtuosity and gorgeously liquid tone in this work are unequaled in my experience. He is ably accompanied by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. I chose the word "ably" rather than stronger praise because I feel that the orchestral contribution here -- just tempi, lovely tonality and precise ensemble playing -- nonetheless leaves me wanting more. After hearing this performance a couple of times I dug out my venerable early Capitol stereo LP featuring soloist Jack Brymer and the masterly conducting of Sir Thomas Beecham -- still the finest recording of K.  622 I have ever heard. While there is nothing wrong with Schwarz's reading of the piece, one need only hear Beecham's lovely shaping of the music to perceive the gap between competence and genius.

We might draw a similar distinction in comparing the discmate to Mozart's masterpiece. Spohr was certainly a competent composer, and  a successful one in the early 19th century. Clearly his music appeals to some; the CD booklet quotes a member of the Spohr Society of Great Britain. I don't think I'll be applying for membership in that group.

Written in 1810, the Spohr concerto's orchestration reflects the early romanticism of Beethoven and other contemporaries. But it's thematic content seems to look backward to the 18th century rather than forward. As I suggested earlier, the piece is well crafted and formally -- though not, I would say, intellectually -- complex. It does demand some virtuosity from the soloist, which Manasse easily delivers. But having now heard it a few times, I have to say that this concerto is long on rhetoric and short on inspiration. Some composers become obscure for a reason.

I am perfectly willing to concede that my inability to connect to the Spohr may have more to do with my personal tastes than with the composer's achievement. But for me this concerto gives us only competence, not genius.

The sound on this stereo CD is clear and generally well balanced, with a reasonably realistic presentation of soloist vs. ensemble. The clarinet is beautifully rendered in both performances, but orchestral dynamics seem slightly subdued.

Recommended to lovers of great clarinet playing!

 

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