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Mostly Mozart

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/06/2001 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies # 25 & 36 – Clarinet Concerto
Stanley Drucker (clarinet)
New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

During the unbalanced cacophonous assault on our ears which was the weekend with the Vienna Philharmonic, I reflected often how Anton Bruckner, Mr Boulez’ most tortured victim, used to play a simple Bach prelude every morning to cleanse his aural palette before a difficult day of composition. Desperately needing similar purification, I found my balm in an unassuming little concert presented by the New York Philharmonic which I had noted with delight about a year ago when first scanning the brochure for the current season. On this side of the Danube, all-Mozart evenings have once again been relegated to summer fare, the insane ubiquity of the 1980’s now giving way to relative obscurity, more akin to Mozart’s treatment in the 1800’s (although the Philharmonic has been in existence since before 1840, it had never performed any of the three works on last night’s program until well into the twentieth century). Under the steady but gentle hand of Sir Colin Davis, the locals presented a well balanced and splendidly thought out program which served as the perfect antidote to the flagrant excesses of decibel worship so recently foisted by Boulez on a gullible Carnegie Hall public.

The performance of the Symphony # 25 was close to perfect. Using a very small orchestra, Davis brought out the delicacy of this era by emphasizing the polished string tone which is sometimes hidden in this ensemble but was last night in glorious evidence. Even with four horns supplementing this tiny band, there was never a sense of lack of Classical proportion, the net effect one of superbly joyful music making.

Significant music for the clarinet really begins with Mozart. He excitedly wrote to his father that introducing the new instruments to the orchestra opened up a wealth of interesting coloristic possibilities. Around 1770 he began to write clarinet parts for his divertimenti and by 1778 was including the instrument as a standard member of his orchestra. Clarinets accompany voices in Mozart’s Nocturnes K436 to 439 and even merited their own composition, the Adagio K411 for two clarinets and three basset horns. For his friend and fellow Freemason, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, Mozart composed a variety of works including the Gran Partita K361, the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano K498, known as the “Kegelstatt” or “Skittles” trio (supposedly tossed off while the distracted composer was watching a game of skittles-an early variety of billiards), the Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon K452, the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet K581 and the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra K622, as well as highly developed parts in La Clemenza di Tito, The Magic Flute and the Requiem. Mozart was the first to appreciate the similar sonorities of the viola and the clarinet and exploited this phenomenon in the Kegelstatt Trio. The beautiful main theme of the third movement is one of the most famous in all of Mozart and has been used as a theme song for several classical music radio programs. The K581 quintet is the first to feature the clarinet as if it were the solo instrument of a concerto. One of the simplest and most delightful of all of Mozart’s works, this quintet is built on a shimmering lightness. The concerto, the last major work written by the composer, pits the soloist against a relatively large orchestra for the period. The solo instrument remains discreet throughout, however, never even playing a cadenza. The slow movement is transcendentally beautiful and the third movement expresses the personality of the clarinet as wonderfully playful. Mozart was inspired by the many clarinet concerti of Stamitz who had introduced the solo instrument into his Mannheim orchestra in the middle of the eighteenth century.

There are major technical problems inherent in a modern performance of this concerto. The clarinet of Mozart’s day had a different range and so the modern performer must make a choice. He can either resurrect an ancient instrument, as Simeon Bellison used to do with this same orchestra by playing upon his old wooden Oehler, perform the piece on a basset horn, a relative of the clarinet with the additional notes extant, employ a bastardized version of the instrument which some inventive musicologist has actually commissioned, or transpose the material to fit in modern dress. In any of these cases, the soloist must be accomplished not only in embouchure, set up and fingering, but must also be Protean enough to express the many moods which dwell in this marvelous valedictory work. Last evening the principal clarinetist of the Philharmonic, Stanley Drucker, took his turn at this acknowledged benchmark of his instrument.

Audiophiles may be surprised to note that this is the same Stanley Drucker who recorded so many brilliant concerto performances with Bernstein’s orchestra in the early 1960’s. Mr. Drucker is now in his 53rd season of continuous performance with the Philharmonic and has thus spent much more time in his present job than Mozart did on earth. Another way to celebrate this longevity is to note that when Drucker was appointed principal clarinet, the principal violinist of the group was contemporary composer (now well along in middle age) John Corigliano’s father. At 72, Mr. Drucker is now old enough to be considered as a candidate to conduct the New York Philharmonic. This concerto is a favorite among advanced students in their teen years and last evening it was showcased by an advanced student with a similarly fresh attitude and approach.

Drucker opted for his own modern clarinet and so the music that we heard was not really that of Mozart at all. Through transpositions and octave doubling (it is the low tones which are missing) he approximated the original composition as best as he could without the proper equipment. But Mozart was a practical man and would have been little troubled by this arrangement. The orchestra was notably larger than in the first piece and the more full-bodied sonority was appreciatively apparent. Not a flawless performance perhaps, but one of exceptional vigor. The soloist did rush his extended runs in the first movement several times, but Sir Colin refused to alter his gentlemanly tempo of astonishing leisure and eventually reigned in his maverick star. What was most striking was Drucker’s ability to be so emotive at such a low volume level, the orchestra supplying the most diaphanous support while never playing above a mezzo forte. The Adagio was sublime, the Rondo convivial. The audience rewarded Drucker with several waves of well-deserved praise.

In the ”Linz”, an even larger band was employed, but it was still considerably smaller than a modern troupe. Now we were able to hear the boy genius at his most colorful, the old-fashioned rounded trumpets lovely in their accompaniment, the soft sticks applied to the timpani eloquently powerful (what a contrast to the maniacal thumping of the Vienna Phil). There were even clarinets in the group! Davis significantly brought out the drama of the piece and showed us all that a whisper is much more compelling than a shout. This type of tranquility was often used as a soothing alternative to the growing elephantiasis of the fin-de-siecle. After all, Mahler's dying word was Mozart!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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