August 01, 2019


Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1-4. Karl Leister, clarinet; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Orfeo. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volumes 7 and 8: Mozart—Piano Concertos Nos. 15, 24, 25 and 27. Idil Biret, piano; London Mozart Players and Worthing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons. IBA. $19.99 (2 CDs).

John Hilliard: 2 Preludes, 3 Fugues and 1 Postlude; Florence Price: Sonata in E minor; Conlon Nancarrow: Tango?; Steven Bryant: RedLine. Cole Burger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The saying is that good things – well, bad things, too – come in threes. But sometimes good things come in fours, as with Louis Spohr’s four clarinet concertos, which are among his few works that have remained more or less enduringly popular. Spohr’s fame in his lifetime and near-total obscurity afterwards somewhat parallel the situation of Hummel, who, like Spohr, bestrode the Classical and Romantic eras and seemed in hindsight not to belong particularly clearly to either. But also like Hummel, Spohr has been somewhat rediscovered in recent years, and for good reason: he not only wrote some excellent music but also was responsible for some genuine advances in the field – for example, Spohr invented the violin chinrest. Spohr’s musical output was responsible for advances of its own: he wrote his clarinet concertos for noted virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt, and in his first concerto Spohr deliberately wrote a solo part that went beyond the physical limits of the clarinet. Undaunted, Hermstedt had a new, extended-range clarinet built so he could play Spohr’s music – and it is this clarinet design that is still in use today. Yet Spohr was not merely “fooling around” with Hermstedt any more than Mozart was merely “fooling around” when writing his horn concertos for Joseph Leutgeb: Spohr genuinely wanted his concertos to display the soloist’s technical skill while offering beauty and lyricism to the audience. All four of the concertos do exactly that, often accentuating the clarinet’s lower range and inviting the audience’s emotional involvement through extensive use of minor keys: only the second concerto is in the major (E-flat), while No. 1 is in C minor, No. 3 in F minor, and No. 4 in E minor. Karl Leister has a smooth, sumptuous clarinet tone that fits this music very well indeed, and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart is conducted with assurance and a nicely complementary warmth by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on a new Orfeo two-CD set. This is not actually “new” in terms of the recording date, though: the performances date all the way back to 1983, in the early days of all-digital recording, and the sound is not quite as rich and full-bodied as later digital sound was to become. But the excellence of the interpretations more than makes up for the minor inadequacies of the audio reproduction, which is quite fine even though it is not at the highest modern quality level.

     The sound is first-rate and the performances much more recent in Idil Biret’s new recording of four Mozart piano concertos on the IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label. But something significantly misfires in these readings, despite Biret’s longstanding reputation as a fine Mozart interpreter. Born in 1941, Biret was 74 when she made this recording of Concertos Nos. 15 and 24, and 77 when she recorded Nos. 25 and 27. Her pianistic abilities certainly show no signs of flagging – indeed, in these live recordings she still turns a phrase with considerable elegance, and manages both lightness and drama with consummate skill. But her pacing of these concertos, and the accompaniment accorded by the orchestras under John Gibbons, ranges from being slightly “off” to being downright misconceived. The very opening of No. 15 stops and starts so oddly that it almost sounds as if the orchestra was not quite ready to start playing at the beginning of the concert – but that proves untrue, since the first movement’s recapitulation is just as hesitant and prissy as the exposition. And in this movement, Biret presents a cadenza of her own – which, surprisingly, is not at all in keeping with Mozart’s style in general or the style of this movement in particular. The concerto’s second and third movements are considerably better, but the unfortunate effects of the first movement pull down the overall quality of the performance. Something similar happens in No. 24, whose first movement is slow almost to the point of dragging. Perhaps the intent here is to add even more gravitas to this magnificent minor-key concerto, but what actually happens is that the first movement sounds earthbound and hidebound – stodgy rather than strong. Again, the second and third movements fare much better, but the overall effect is subpar. The best performance here is of Concerto No. 25, which moves with a stately grace befitting its thematic material and C major key. The pacing is, again, on the slow side, but not to an uncomfortable degree here, especially since the first movement is marked Allegro maestoso. This is a concerto that is almost in updated galant style, and both Biret and Gibbons seem quite comfortable in allowing it to proceed with considerable elegance. If only all the concertos recorded here were at this level! But matters are again less than they could be in No. 27, Mozart’s last piano concerto – whose opening movement yet again is made a bit ponderous, despite this concerto’s lighter scoring. The listless pacing is especially noticeable at the first movement’s first piano entry, but in fact the entire concerto, not just the first movement, is quite slow, a sort of Mozart in molasses. The latter part of the final Rondo, notably, is really very slow indeed, sapped of strength and listless. Biret’s very fine playing never, in any of these four concertos, achieves the sparkling quality of which she is capable and which she has shown elsewhere in Mozart. As a result, this is a (+++) release, and even that will seem a tad high to listeners who have heard these wonderful works played with considerably more verve than Biret and Gibbons offer here.

     The foursome of composers whose piano works appear on a new (+++) MSR Classics CD have Arkansas in common: all are from that state. But there is little that they otherwise share in terms of the music performed by Cole Burger. There are two substantial pieces here, by John Hilliard and Florence Price, and two much shorter and more-modest ones, by Conlon Nancarrow and Steven Bryant. Three works are from the 20th century: Price’s dates to 1932, Nancarrow’s to 1983, and Bryant’s to 1999. Hilliard’s 2 Preludes, 3 Fugues and 1 Postlude is the most-recent piece, created in 2010-13. And it is quite enjoyable for listeners who want to hear a contemporary composer’s way with Baroque forms – which Hilliard handles skillfully and with quite a few modern harmonic touches. The six pieces bear dedications somewhat reflective of their content: for example, the third, a mere 30-second Prelude on G, is marked, “Happy Birthday, Arnold Schoenberg!” And the last and longest piece, the Postlude on A, is “dedicated to the people of Okinawa, Japan.” Burger throws himself into the music with enthusiasm, and has a good sense of the not-too-rigid, occasionally somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach that Hilliard brings to the formal aspects of these well-constructed works. Price’s sonata appears next on the disc and takes itself considerably more seriously in every way. Avowedly and unashamedly Romantic in style and approach, the sonata is traditionally structured with an expansive first movement, a rather short and somewhat intermezzo-like Andante, and an outgoing final Scherzo (Allegro). It is not a very tightly knit piece, leaning more toward expressive pianism than toward elegance of construction. Indeed, in some ways, especially in the first movement, it has more the character of a fantasia than that of a sonata. It does have many beauties, including some distinctly folklike elements, and calls for just the sort of sensitive, involved interpretation that Burger accords it. The sonata stands in distinct contrast to Nancarrow’s Tango? The question mark is quite deliberate: this two-and-a-half-minute piece is in no way danceable and is also quite different from the concert-hall tangos of Ástor Piazzolla. It is packed with notes, so many that at times it sounds as if the pianist needs three hands to encompass all of them; and in its atonality and ever-changing rhythms, the piece has something of the character of a musical joke, late-20th-century style. Bryant’s RedLine, which concludes this disc (and which also exists in later versions for wind ensemble, saxophone ensemble, and percussion quartet), is overtly jazzy and, in the main, enthusiastic. The concept, as the title indicates, is to push the piano (and instruments in the other versions) to their limits, and there is certainly plenty of energy in Burger’s playing, although the piece itself has a feeling of much ado about not very much. Still, it makes a pleasant enough conclusion to an interesting CD that shows, if nothing else, that composers from Arkansas are as varied in their interests and approaches as are other composers united only by geography.

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