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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).
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.
from notes by David Kettle © 2012