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Mozart loved wind instruments and wrote beautifully for them throughout his life. Even his piano concertos have been called, with justification, "concertos for wind with piano obligato." Mozart referred to his quintet for winds and piano, K. 452, as "the best work I have ever composed."
The Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581, ("Stadler Quintet") has always been my favorite Mozart. The quintet receives an outstanding performance on this CD on Hyperion by the great clarinetist Thea King (1925 -- 2007) together with another Mozart masterpiece for clarinet, the Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622. Ms. King plays on a modern version of the basset clarinet, an instrument which has a lower register larger than the modern clarinet. Mozart initially composed both these works for the basset clarinet.
On this CD, Ms. King performs the clarinet quintet with the Gabrielli String Quartet. Mozart composed his clarinet quintet in 1789 for his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler. This music speaks of heartbreak and resignation in its lyrical and beautifully-wrought surface. The work was written near the end of Mozart's life, and its themes have a sighing quality and a sense of finality. I have found this music wrenching over the years. The work is melodiously written for the clarinet and exploits the full possibilities of this beautiful instrument. The work alternates between passages of chamber music in which each of the five voices carries its own line as an equal and passages in which the voice of the clarinet predominates as "first among equals."
The quintet is in four movements. The first movement opens with a sighing theme in the strings, but the clarinet quickly enters and takes the lead. There are beautiful exchanges between violin, cello and clarinet as the movement progresses, and counterpoint among all the instruments in the development section. This movement has a wilting, meditative character. The following Larghetto opens with a slow, flowing solo for the clarinet over the strings. This movement is largely in the upper register of the clarinet and has a glowing, reflective character. The third movement is unusual in that it includes two minuets, the first for strings alone and the second for a bumptious clarinet. The finale is a whimsical laughing-through-tears set of variations in which the clarinet and the quartet alternate beautifully with each other. The second variation features a clarinet obligato over a melody in the strings, while the third is in the minor key. The fifth variation is in a slow tempo, followed by a rapid close. This work is one of the high inspirations of music.
Mozart also composed the clarinet concerto for Stadler in 1791. The work was initially scored for basset clarinet, but first published with revisions for clarinet to account for the shorter low range of the instrument. The basset clarinet score has been lost, but fragments remain. The work has been reconstructed for basset clarinet and performed on that instrument by Ms. King with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate. Alfred Einstein has said that 'the greatness and the transcendent beauty of this work are such as its high Kochel number would lead us to expect. One almost has the impression that Mozart felt impelled to express again, in greater and dramatically animated form, what he had already expressed in more lyric form in the domain of chamber music in the Stadler Quintet."
I was struck by the smooth, graceful, and full sound of the English Chamber Orchestra, particularly in the opening movement. It is a model of Mozart playing for orchestra. The work features close integration between the orchestra and the clarinet soloist. The concerto allows the clarinet to display its high and low registers, to drop suddenly between them, to play both smoothly and brusquely, to perform arpeggios, runs, and trills. The listener can hear how Mozart loved this instrument.
The first movement opens with a full orchestral exposition, after which the clarinet enters in its high register. Much of the clarinet part includes drops to the lower octave of the instrument, which makes appropriate the revised scoring for the basset clarinet for which Mozart wrote the work. The work has a sighing, resigned character similar to the quintet. The second movement features a slow, flowing theme in the clarinet with orchestral accompaniment. The clarinet sings throughout its range and the orchestra plays with a warm, round tone. The finale, a rondo, opens with a piping theme for clarinet solo, and the clarinet also takes the lead in the couplets, with dramatic contrasts in volume and rapid changes in the register of the instrument. This is a convincing performance of a great work.
The clarinet quintet and concerto are Mozart at his greatest. This CD offers an excellent opportunity to get to know this music.