Mozart: Clarinet Concerto (CD review)

Also, Clarinet Quintet. Sharon Kam, basset clarinet. Osterreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie. Berlin Classics 0016672BC.

If Classical Candor gave out awards for Best Recordings of the Year, this release of late-Mozart clarinet works would surely be high on the list of contenders. It is an almost perfect realization of the composer's music in equally felicitous recorded sound. I haven't listened to anything so charming in quite some time.

In the first number on the disc, Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K622, virtuoso clarinetist Sharon Kam plays the solo part and leads the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic. Written in 1791, the year Mozart died, the Clarinet Concerto was probably his last completed work. Needless to say, it is a mature composition, displaying all of the man's talents for melody, harmony, versatility, meditation, merriment, and delight. An advantage to Ms. Kam's realization, besides being one of the most well-thought-out and appealing versions available, is that she plays it on a basset clarinet, the instrument for which Mozart wrote the piece. At the time Mozart composed the work, the clarinet was just coming into its own, a relatively new instrument in the orchestra, and the basset clarinet was an early example of same. It is a period instrument capable of a lower register than the modern clarinet, and Ms. Kam demonstrates its rich, mellow sonority to the fullest. As the Clarinet Concerto contains any number of plush, fluid passages, the basset clarinet pays them due respect.

With Ms. Kam the Clarinet Concerto sings. From the rhapsodic tranquility of the first movement through the sweet, wistful, melancholic flow of the second movement to the energetic playfulness of the finale, Ms. Kam and the Haydn Philharmonic are in complete accord with the material, producing a warm, elegant, refined, and moving interpretation. This performance is in every way the equal of several other notable recordings, like the classic one from Jack Brymer (EMI) or more-recent ones on basset clarinet from Richard Hosford (ASV), Thea King (Hyperion), and Michael Collins (DG). Yes, Ms. Kam more than holds her own.

In the accompanying work, the Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Violoncello in A major, KV581 (1789), four other distinguished players join Ms. Kam: Isabelle van Keulen, violin; Ulrike-Anima Mathe, violin; Volker Jackobsen, viola; and Gustav Rivinius, violoncello. Their execution is wonderfully lyrical and relaxed and their playing ideal, with the resonant sound of the basset clarinet lending an agreeably vibrant sonority to the proceedings. Like everything else in the performance, the final variations are a joy.

The two recordings, made in 2009 and 2010, and thankfully done without the distractions of a live audience, could hardly sound better. We get sonics of a smooth, melted-butter variety that entirely befit the kind of music presented, the clarinet well integrated into the two ensembles rather than standing apart. While we do not find the clarity or presence of some audiophile recordings, we do hear the natural reproduction of the instruments in a pleasantly ambient acoustic. The clarinet, especially, radiates a mellifluous tone that is never at odds with the other players, a calming, reassuring tone that complements Ms. Kam's virtuosic yet wholly warmhearted performances. This is a welcome album from start to finish, among the best I've heard this year.


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