The multi-award-winning Scottish Chamber Orchestra returns with Weber Wind Concertos, the sixteenth album in its celebrated series with Linn. This recording gives the internationally-acclaimed principal musicians a chance to dazzle in Weber's virtuosic and thrilling concertos. Alexander Janiczek leads Maximilano Martín (clarinet), Peter Whelan (bassoon) and Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn) in a thrilling programme by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber.
The Clarinet Concerto No 1 and Concertino for clarinet & orchestra were composed at a pivotal time in the instrument's development. A new style of playing which was soft, full and rich in tone inspired several composers to write for the instrument, whilst inspiring Weber to write what would become one of the cornerstone's of the clarinet repertoire.
Weber's background as an opera composer is apparent in the entertaining and theatrical Bassoon Concerto. As Peter Whelan commented: ‘It's terrific fun to play because Weber writes for the bassoon as though it were a tenor in an opera—so you get to play lots of different characters … from jilted lover to comic clown.' For this performance Peter has reconstructed a version of the 1822 score rather than employing the commonly used 1865 version.
With a preponderance of chromatic pitches and the requirement of multiphonic chords, the virtuosic Horn Concertino is widely regarded as an extremely demanding work for soloists. Alec Frank-Gemmill commented: ‘Weber's clever combination of tunefulness with crazy special effects is a winner and was also unprecedented at the time.' In a unique twist Alec combines these interesting features with memories of melodies heard earlier in the piece to perform his own version of the cadenza.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
More significantly, Franz Anton dreamt that one of his children would be a prodigy like the young Mozart, a desire only strengthened by the fact that he was the uncle of Constanze Weber, who became Mozart’s wife. Franz Anton was thus only too aware of Mozart’s early successes. He took Carl Maria’s half-brothers Fritz and Edmund to Vienna to study with Haydn, but neither turned out to be the child genius he hoped for.
Carl Maria seemed an unlikely candidate for the role. He was a sickly child with a hip condition that made him limp throughout his life. However, he showed an early aptitude for music, and his father pushed him hard, encouraging him to study piano, counterpoint, bass, singing and composition. After Carl Maria’s mother, Genovefa Brenner (Franz Anton’s second wife), fell ill in 1796, the family settled temporarily in Hildburghausen, where Carl Maria received his first proper musical schooling with local teacher John Peter Heuschkel. And when the family moved to Salzburg in 1797, his father ensured that his musical studies stepped up a gear, taking him to continue his counterpoint studies with Michael Haydn.
It was that same year, aged just 12, that Carl Maria had his first pieces published – a set of six short fughettas dedicated to his half-brother Edmund. By the age of 17 he was already making his own way in the musical world, and at 18 he was appointed conductor at the municipal theatre in Breslau.
Although maybe not quite the prodigy his father had hoped for, Carl Maria nevertheless achieved enormous success in a number of areas: as a conductor, a critic, a pianist, and, most notably, as an opera composer. The premiere of Der Freischütz in 1821 in Berlin made him the most talked-about composer of his time, and showed that he could liberate opera from Italian influence and establish a truly German style.
Yet he also excelled in smaller-scale instrumental music, as exemplified in the four wind concertos on this recording. Perhaps inevitably, they often betray the profound influence of Weber’s beloved opera, but that only adds to the pieces’ richness, bringing a freedom and expressivity to their melodic lines that are seldom found in contemporary works by other composers.
But why did Weber show such an interest in wind instruments, especially the clarinet? The start of the 19th century, when he was writing, was a pivotal time for the instrument. It had reached a certain level of technical maturity, and a group of virtuoso players had grown up around it. The clarinettist Joseph Beer had established a German style of playing that was soft, rich and full in tone, in contrast to the more piercing, brilliant French style, and he and his students had inspired several composers to write for the instrument. Mozart had already shown what the instrument was capable of in his Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto, inspired by the playing of Anton Stadler. Weber knew these works, but it was another player who was to inspire him to write what would later become cornerstones of the clarinet repertoire.
Concertino for Clarinet & Orchestra in C minor / E flat major Op 26, J109
In February 1811, aged 25, Weber embarked on a concert tour that he intended would take him to Munich, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Copenhagen and St Petersburg. In fact, he stopped in Munich, his first port of call, whose court would prove critical in the creation of his wind concertos. Armed with a letter of introduction to Maximilian Josef von Montgelas, minister to King Maximilian I of the newly created state of Bavaria, he was welcomed into the palace and introduced to the Queen, who requested that he put on a concert to display his musical skills.
Among the Munich court orchestra’s players was the clarinettist Heinrich Bärmann. Born in 1784, Bärmann had trained in Potsdam and served in a military band before he was captured by Napoleon’s troops in Jena. Upon his release, he had returned to Munich, and had later become widely known for his virtuosity on the clarinet following a concert tour that took in England, France, Italy and Russia.
Bärmann and Weber quickly became close friends during the composer’s stay in Munich. Seizing the opportunity offered by Bärmann’s presence, Weber immediately set to work on a piece for the proposed royal concert that would display both his own and the clarinettist’s skills. The work would become the Clarinet Concertino.
The concert took place on the 5th April 1811, and Weber and Bärmann performed to a packed audience. The Concertino was a huge success with the court and the public alike, to such an extent that the King commissioned two further clarinet concertos from Weber (which he also wrote for Bärmann), the first of which can also be heard on this recording.
Weber seems to have been intent on showing off Bärmann’s advanced performing technique in the Concertino, especially the tone colour and flexibility enabled by the ten-key instrument that the clarinettist had recently started playing. Even in the clarinet’s second phrase, for example, there’s a leap of more than two octaves designed to test the soloist’s control of tone colour and smoothness of phrasing.
The single-movement Concertino moves from a slow introduction in C minor to an Andante theme and variations in E-flat major, and finally a genial Allegro that continues the E-flat major tonality. An emphatic C minor chord accompanied by pounding timpani launches the work, and the clarinet unexpectedly enters with a plaintive melody half-way through a phrase. Solemn horns in octaves mark the transition to the Andante’s amiable theme, and the clarinettist is soon put through his paces in increasingly demanding and complex variations (even the first one is marked con fuoco, literally ‘with fire’). The music suddenly dies away into a remarkable passage scored for the dark-hued combination of clarinet and divisi violas, a moment of stillness amid the Concertino’s frenetic activity. It’s also an episode that mirrors similar passages, equally strikingly scored, in Weber’s other wind concertos. The music soon bursts back into bright, vibrant life, though, and after a calmer section that harks back to the opening’s C minor tonality, the piece heads to its brilliant conclusion with bubbling arpeggios from the soloist.
Clarinet Concerto No 1 in F minor Op 73, J114
Weber composed the first of the two clarinet concertos commissioned by King Maximilian quickly, in April and May 1811 (he reputedly wrote the first movement, and orchestrated it, in a single day). It was first performed on 13th June 1811 in Munich, again with Heinrich Bärmann, its dedicatee, as soloist.
Don’t be fooled by the work’s high opus number, which does not reflect its date of composition: Weber only gave the score to his Berlin publisher Schlesinger in 1822, who added it to the end of his list of works. After the piece’s initial performances, Bärmann felt that the first movement ought to show off his abilities to greater effect, so he inserted a short cadenza that functions like a flourish for the soloist.
Although it has contrasting themes, development, a cadenza and a form of recapitulation, the Concerto’s first movement is not strictly speaking in sonata form. Instead, the orchestra and soloist take a subject each. The cellos have the distinctive first subject, based around a rising and falling F minor triad, which explodes in towering tutti chords that come as if from nowhere. Following stormy outbursts from the orchestra, the soloist enters with a poignant second theme marked con duolo (‘sorrowfully’). After a return of the opening theme, this time in D-flat major and with embellishments from the soloist, a section featuring clarinet triplets leads to Bärmann’s cadenza. A development section combines earlier themes, and the brief recapitulation presents a restatement of the opening triad theme before the clarinet takes over in sparkling runs and the movement subsides into a ruminative conclusion.
In the second movement, the clarinet floats an aria-like melody over gently rocking chords in the strings. The movement’s middle section is in two parts, the first a brief but assertive C minor episode where the clarinet performs runs up and down over a wide range. The second is another of Weber’s dark-hued passages, combining the solo clarinet with a trio of horns in an exquisite chorale. A restatement of the opening melody and a brief reminiscence of the horn chorale end the movement.
The finale is a jaunty, dance-like rondo in 2/4, which the clarinet mischievously seems intent on slowing down on two occasions. It reaches a temporary conclusion with a brief flourish that sends the clarinet up into its highest register, but continues in an introspective episode in D minor, breathless semiquavers from the soloist in a B-flat major passage, and joyful final bars.
Bassoon Concerto in F major Op 75, J127
It wasn’t just Maximilian I who was impressed enough by Weber’s Clarinet Concertino to ask the composer for further new pieces. A number of other instrumentalists from the Munich orchestra made similar requests. Weber wrote to his friend, the German music theorist Gottfried Weber (no relation):
Since I composed the Concertino for Bärmann, the whole orchestra has been the very devil about demanding concertos from me … two Clarinet Concertos (of which one in F minor is almost ready), two large arias, a Cello Concerto for Legrand, a Bassoon Concerto. You see I’m not doing at all badly, and very probably I’ll be spending the summer here, where I’m earning so much that I’ve something left over after paying my keep … Besides, the orchestra and everybody would like to see me appointed Kapellmeister.
That appointment never took place, and neither did Weber meet the demands of all the orchestral musicians. The suggested Cello Concerto never appeared, and instead of a Flute Concerto, the Munich flautists received a scholarly article entitled A New Discovery for Perfecting the Flute, providing a thorough technical appraisal of Johann Nepomuk Capeller’s new flute design.
But the Munich bassoonist was luckier. Weber wrote his Bassoon Concerto at lightning speed, from the 14th to 17th November 1811, for the city’s court bassoonist Georg Friedrich Brandt, who had been a soloist before joining the Munich orchestra. Its first performance was on the 28th December 1811. The original printed copy described the work as a First Bassoon Concerto, raising the possibility that Weber was intending further pieces for the instrument, although the ordinal disappeared from later editions and the work remained Weber’s only concerto for the instrument.
Weber the opera composer is again evident in the Bassoon Concerto. Here, it’s almost as if the soloist is playing a different role in each movement. In any case, Weber shows the same sensitivity to the instrument’s colours and nuances as he did with the clarinet, and although there’s a great deal of humour in the piece, any comedy comes entirely out of the music – we’re definitely laughing with the soloist, rather than at him.
In the military-style first movement, the orchestral exposition lays out two contrasting themes: a Beethovenian martial statement, full of dotted rhythms and running scales, and a more flowing, lyrical melody. Eight solemn timpani strokes herald the soloist’s entry, first in F major and then (after more timpani strokes) in a contrasting G minor. The development section focuses mainly on the march theme, with bravura passagework from the soloist and distinctive triplet figurations. An efficient recapitulation moves swiftly to a coda without any real cadenza for the soloist, although there is plenty of sparkling solo writing in the movement’s final passages.
Despite its assertive dotted-rhythm opening gesture, which recalls the first movement, the Adagio in B flat major showcases the bassoon’s lyricism, and as elsewhere in Weber’s wind concertos its lyrical melody reminds us of the composer’s love of opera. As in the First Clarinet Concerto, a central episode accompanies the bassoon with just two horns in a glowing yet rather mysterious passage. After the briefest of cadenzas for the soloist, the movement ends with a sense of dignity and tenderness.
The third movement is a witty, playful Rondo that allows the bassoonist to emerge as a comedian, demonstrating his skills with quick-fire passagework that takes in the extremes of the instrument’s range. After two contrasting episodes, a hectic coda is kicked off by an orchestral restatement of the Rondo theme.
The history of the Bassoon Concerto’s editions is a complicated one. Following its 1811 premiere, Weber revised the piece slightly in 1822 when he submitted it to his publisher Schlesinger, expanding some of the first movement’s orchestral tuttis and adding performance markings to the solo part. There are additional changes in an 1823 set of parts, and to complicate matters still further, performances of the work now generally use an 1865 edition that was heavily edited by an anonymous hand. For this disc, soloist Peter Whelan has reconstructed a version of the 1822 score from a manuscript in the Staatsbibliothek Berlin, which features an interesting minor-key inflection in the opening ritornello and small yet telling changes to the dynamic and articulation markings throughout.
Horn Concertino in E minor Op 45, J188
Weber wrote his Horn Concertino as far back as 1806, when he was just 19, for C. Dautrevaux, a virtuoso horn player in the court orchestra in Carlsruhe, Silesia, and revised the work in 1815 for his friend Sebastian Rauch in Munich. It seems that Weber discarded the original 1806 manuscript: we only know it exists because of a note in his handwriting on the 1815 edition.
In several ways, the piece looks forward to the Clarinet Concertino of 1811: in its single-movement form; in its unusual structure that perhaps indicates Weber’s desire to move away from the traditional three-movement concerto format; and in its almost operatic treatment of the solo part. It was written for a hand horn and would have pushed the soloist’s technique to its limits; the piece’s preponderance of chromatic pitches look forward to the modern era of the valve horn. Significantly, just three years after the premiere of the Concertino, Heinrich Stölzel and Friedrich Bluhmel patented their horn design employing two piston valves.
The piece falls into four sections: an Adagio-Andante introduction; an Andante theme and variations; a recitative; and a lively Polacca. It opens with ominous-sounding unison Es and Bs for the full orchestra, immediately establishing the E minor sound world, which leads into a sorrowful horn melody in 6/8 that even at this early stage explores the extremes of the instrument’s range, with melodic leaps covering more than two octaves.
The sunnier, somewhat rustic-sounding Andante theme and variations section follows after a short pause, in which the soloist plays a deceptively simple melody that Weber puts through its paces in a series of increasingly embellished variations. The solo part suddenly bursts into life in the second variation, full of cascading triplet arpeggios, setting the scene for lively activity in the later variations.
The recitative section contrasts a vocally inflected, remarkably agile solo horn part against dramatic string chords, and the mood changes again for the stomping polacca dance in E major.
In an 1847 version of the Horn Concertino, transcribed for piano duet, the solo line is heavily ornamented. Soloist Alec Frank-Gemmill has used this as the basis for his own embellishments of the horn part. He also plays his own version of the cadenza between the recitative and Polacca (which Weber marks ‘a piacere’). This combines the multiphonic chords requested in the score (which require the soloist to sing at the same time as playing) with memories of melodies heard earlier in the piece.
David Kettle © 2012