‘You have euphonium lips,’ said my grade 9 high school music teacher. But after a few brassy sessions I developed visions of submersion in Sousa, and, guided by my father’s devotion to Benny Goodman, switched to the clarinet. Which is how I came to Mozart’s and Weber’s clarinet concerti, which, in due course, I learned to play
In the Mozart concerto, the three bars at 311 in the rondo always gave me trouble with their fifteen successive figurations across the fingering break of the instrument, as the sixteenth notes alternate between the chalumeau and clarion registers. I recall sitting a few feet from Richard Stoltzman as he played those bars, and was amazed. And I still am.
The concerto was written for the virtuoso Anton Stadler, who premiered it in Prague in October, 1791, and shortly thereafter, being in pecuniary straits, pawned the autograph in the same city; thus, setting in motion two centuries of musicological scholarship.
Much has been written that the concerto was intended for a basset clarinet, which has a range a third lower than the soprano clarinet in A. This extended range makes the playing of several passages, now typically transcribed into a higher register, easier both technically and aesthetically—at least in the context of melodic flow. Thea King recorded the concerto playing a basset clarinet, and there is no doubt that the conjectural playing of several passages in a lower register by using the lowest third of the basset clarinet is indisputably right. King’s performance is very fine; yet, the basset clarinet does not quite have the beauty of tone, even in the chalumeau register, that the soprano clarinet does; so it is equally indisputable that the concerto sounds better overall on the now conventional clarinet, which established its predominance within even a few years of Mozart’s composing his concerto in 1791, in the last year of his life.
My first recording of the concerto that I added to my collection was that by Reginald Kell and the Zimbler Sinfonietta. It remains my particular touchstone, and I still have the pressing. The recording by Robert Marcellus with George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of its species; and it is indeed a very fine rendition, in particular of the rondo.
A thorough examination of Marcellus’s interpretation has been written by David Etheridge. In this is included commentary on bar 333 of the first movement, which has much signalled to clarinettists that the concerto’s transcription for soprano clarinet, with its unvaried four-fold repetition of an arpeggio at bars 332 and 333, implies in bar 333 a descent to the lowest notes of the basset clarinet, to be followed, in the subsequent bar 334, with an ascent from those depths.
But, I am one of those who can delight in the Goldberg Variations being played on a modern piano, and who savours the Soler Fandango on a Sperrhake harpsichord. Csezław Miłosz, in his poem What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch, wrote “[t]hat time excludes and sentences to oblivion only those works of our hands and minds which prove worthless in raising up, century after century, the huge edifice of civilization.” Harsh, but there is a relentless truth in it.
So it is, and has been, that I keep with me, played on the instrument that is my civilized heart, the adagio of the concerto; Mozart, through his art, reaching me beyond place and through time. And, I like to think, I reaching him.