February 16, 2012


Weber: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra; Concertino for Horn and Orchestra. Michael Collins, clarinet; Stephen Stirling, horn; City of London Sinfonia conducted by Michael Collins. Chandos. $18.99.

Schubert: Winterreise. James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Orchid Classics. $16.99.

     The Romantic era in music did not spring full-grown from the mind of Beethoven, although it sometimes seems that way. Its seeds were planted by some of Haydn’s late works and by Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Piano Concerto No. 24, among other pieces, and they were nurtured not only by Beethoven but also by transitional composers such as Field, Hummel and Ries. And then there is Carl Maria von Weber, whose family ties to Mozart and dramatic sensibilities within instrumental as well as operatic music make him a powerful early Romantic – who likely would have been more important to the era had he not died before his 40th birthday. The excellent new Chandos CD of Weber’s clarinet-and-orchestra works, all of which were composed in 1811, the year of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, clearly shows the ways in which Weber brought Romantic-style operatic drama and intensity to purely instrumental music. His approach is confirmed in the horn concertino that he wrote before he turned 20 and revised nine years later, in 1815. Michael Collins, as clarinet soloist and conductor of the clean-sounding City of London Sinfonia, is fully cognizant of the drama inherent in the clarinet works as well as the considerable skill needed to perform them. The first concerto, in the fairly unusual key of F minor, opens in mystery that is abruptly contrasted with an unexpected C major chord. It meanders from key to key, its first movement containing a C minor passage that sounds like something out of Der Freischütz (which was not yet written), its second movement mixing an opera-like aria with the sounds of a chorale. Only the concluding rondo is comparatively straightforward. The second concerto, in E-flat major, has a brighter first movement but a deeper second one, in G minor – which includes a recitative-like passage that would not be out of place in an opera. The finale is even more brilliant than that of the first concerto, again having something operatic about its bubbling intricacy. As for the concertino, it is unusual in being written equally in two keys: C minor and E-flat major. In only nine minutes, it moves from a very dramatic opening to a set of increasingly intense variations to a brief finale in which the clarinet’s emotional outbursts are contrasted with more-lyrical orchestral passages. These works, which are done to a turn in Collins’ performances, clearly establish the Romantic emotionalism to which concertos would be devoted more and more completely in ensuing decades. The horn concertino, which is very well played by Stephen Stirling, does not have quite the same sensibilities, but it is notable for another reason: Romantic composers frequently challenged the limits of instrumental playing, and that is just what Weber does here, giving the soloist an almost four-octave range and including pedal notes and horn chords (not all of which are playable). This concertino, in E minor, requires the soloist to be equally adept in high and low horn parts – even though, at the time the work was written, those parts were still kept separate and played by different musicians. What is remarkable about Weber’s solo clarinet and horn works is how much they moved into new territory while still sounding so good and offering so much listening pleasure to an audience: this CD is simply a delight to hear.

     Schubert’s dates (1797-1828) are not much different from Weber’s (1786-1826), but by the end of his short life, Schubert was fully engaged in Romantic sensibilities. Winterreise shows them from start to finish. Written in 1827 in two parts (the first 12 songs were finished in the spring, the last 12 composed later in the year), the cycle in some ways parallels Die schöne Müllerin of 1823 and also uses poems by Wilhelm Müller. But while the earlier cycle opened with upbeat moments that only gradually turned to heartbreak, despair and death, Winterreise is doom-haunted and gloomy throughout – even though it does not end in death. The pervasive bleakness of the landscape of cold, snow and ice is reflective of the heartache of the protagonist, whose beloved is now going to marry another. Fleeing the house and town where he had hoped to find lasting love, he wanders through desolation in an entirely Romantic way, with animals and the land itself indicative of his emotions and contributing to them. At the end of his winter journey he encounters an aged, impoverished organ-grinder, ignored by townspeople and snarled at by dogs, and wonders whether he should join his fate to that of the old man. This is comparable as a conclusion to the mezzoforte ending of Sibelius’ most-desolate symphony, No. 4, albeit in a very different medium – and early in Romanticism rather than toward its end. Winterreise is generally most effective when sung by a top-notch baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of its most notable exponents), but James Gilchrist shows that it can also have strong impact when movingly performed by a tenor – especially one ably abetted by so sensitive a pianist as Anna Tilbrook. Gilchrist and Tilbrook are true collaborators, the contributions of each complementing and enriching those of the other. Whether in the stasis of Wasserflut and Auf dem Flusse, in the rage of Die Wetterfahne, or in the mind-fogged illusion of Die Nebensonnen, the performers work as a team to bring together the pathos and intensity of Müller’s poetry with the delicacy and intense expressiveness of Schubert’s music. This Winterreise hovers on the edge of despair without ever quite falling into it – a highly effective treatment of a song cycle whose protagonist is driven almost to madness but ends up in something like a desert of emotional blankness. This is full-fledged Romanticism, which other composers would extend in later years but would scarcely make more affecting or more effective.

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