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All Subtlety and Depth: Mozart and Weber: Clarinet Quintets

The MHS Review 411, VOL. 12, NO.15• 1988

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Steven L. Rosenhaus


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We live in an age where technical exper­tise is taken for granted, and in the field of musical performance that is no excep­tion. The level of "ordinary" playing has risen to the point where the virtuoso is practically considered mundane. It takes a special performer to rise above the norm. Yet certain instruments boast a goodly number of such people in recent times: It­zhak Perlman and the late, great Jascha Heifetz are two of those to be considered truly great violinists. I won't even attempt to limit the long list of fabulous pianists to just a few names. And lately the clarinet has made its way to these ranks, with the likes of Richard Stoltzman leading the way. Now you can add another name to that list of special performers: Charles Neidich.

I am, admittedly, predisposed to Mr. Neidich's playing. Way back in the days when he performed with the Sylvan Wind Quintet (he has since moved on to the New York Woodwind Quintet), Charles and his cohorts gave the New York City premiere of my Woodwind Quintet # 1. The piece was received exceptionally well; this I at­tribute in most part to the performers' technical expertise (their virtuosity!) and their musicality. Since that time I have followed Mr. Neidich's career with great interest and have seen him perform many times, usually in solo situations. The range of music he covers--all with integrity, knowledge, and a musicality far beyond to­day's average--is simply incredible. Quite a few people at his recitals include other clarinetists, a tribute by deed if ever there was one. One such recital was--TA DA!--sponsored by the same Naumburg Foundation which presents this recording; you all should have been there. Of course you couldn't, which is the reason for this recording's release in the first place. Here is a golden opportunity to hear clarinet playing at its best: supple, secure, and sensuous.

Side one gives us the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major--a warhorse, true, but listen as Neidich treats us to the sound of the basset clarinet. Rarely heard these days, the basset clarinet (or, alternatively, basset horn) extends the range of the typical clarinet downward a few tones but adds what the performer rightly calls in his liner notes "an unusual depth of tone and ... vocal quality." When he performed it at the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Tribune noted that "the performance was all subtlety and depth.'' Side two presents the less often-heard Clarinet Quintet in B-­flat major by Carl Maria von Weber. Where Mozart is subtle in his approach to writing for the clarinet, Weber revels in the instru­ment's capabilities; Mr. Neidich refers to it as the "quintessential work for the clarinet" and I, for one, agree.

And what would a discussion of these works be without at least a mention of the string quartet involved? At least a page short, and since I'm being paid to give you all the enticement you need to actually pur­chase this inexpensive but meticulously produced recording of some of the loveliest music ever created on this planet, I hereby tell you of the greater glories of the Mendelssohn String Quartet.

If there are virtuosi on individual in­struments, can there be an equivalent for groups? It would seem that the Mendelssohn Quartet makes a strong case for the possibility. 1 have heard these fine folk in concerts in New York City at the Merkin Concert Hall, featuring music by the composer whose name they've ap­propriated, as well as works by none other than that destroyer of tonality, Arnold Schoenberg. (It's okay for me to say it, be­ing a composer and all.) That the Quartet can handle such a disparity of styles as nice­ly as Mr. Neidich does is a compliment to both. The group has been in residence with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival since 1984; and, if you live in a major city almost anywhere in these here United States, you've probably had an opportunity to hear them "live."

One would not be surprised to find out that Neidich and the Mendelssohn have played these two works together before, but frankly my memory fails me as to whether they've done so in New York or not. It certainly sounds on this recording like they've been playing them for years­--just long enough to keep the balance bet­ween a sense of technical perfection and musical freshness. One test of performers' abilities to play and charm can be found in a composer's desire to create something for them. In the cases of Charles Neidich and the Mendelssohn Quartet--either separately or as a quintet--I for one would set to composing at the drop of a hat.

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