Monday, June 26, 2017

Berlin Classics’ Collection of Weber’s Clarinet Music Gets American Distribution

This past February Berlin Classics released a two-CD album of the complete works for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber. The clarinetist was the impressive young soloist Sebastian Manz, Principal Clarinet with the SWR Symphonieorchester, affiliated with Southwest German Radio (SWR) and administratively based in Stuttgart. The album divided neatly into one CD for chamber music and the other for orchestral works with the orchestra conducted by Antonio Méndez. The best-known chamber music is the Opus 34 clarinet quintet, which Manz plays with the casalQuartet. The remaining chamber works are performed with Martin Klett on piano. Until this past April, this album was only available through import; but it is now being distributed in the United States by Naxos of America.

In making these recordings Manz is not shy about acknowledging the influential role of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the first to record the second concerto (Opus 74 in E-flat major); but there was some controversy about his “jazzing-up” his performance with his own knapsack of rhetorical twists. Manz had no problem with Goodman’s approach. (For that matter, I do not have any problem either. It is hard to imagine that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ever “stuck to the text” when playing one of his piano concertos. Most likely he was taking liberties with that text long before he got to the cadenza!)

As a result, this is a highly personalized approach to playing Weber. If Weber’s own composition devices tended to be on the predictable side, Manz shows no problems in presenting them to the attentive listener with a refreshing layer of spontaneity. It is highly likely that most of the works on this album will be “first contact” encounters for all but clarinet students and enthusiasts. On the other hand pieces like the Opus 34 quintet and the Opus 26 concertino in E-flat major tend to get a fair share of exposure. The result is that it will be through these pieces that most listeners will be able to appreciate how Manz puts his own personal stamp on the music.

There are many who would quickly dismiss Weber for lacking the depth of his better-known contemporaries. However, this is a recording that prioritizes the making of music over the documenting of it. Manz is definitely a music-maker of the first order; and this album provides a first-rate introduction to his skills.

My only quibble has to do with the nuts-and-bolts of the production process. While the booklet provides many useful thoughts about the music itself, the reader learns about Klett’s contribution as pianist only in passing. An even greater slight is the failure to name the members of the casalQuartet. This may be Manz’ album, but all contributing musicians should be acknowledged for what they have contributed! Finally, there is no explicit explanation for the presence of Lars Olaf Schaper’s name on the back cover. He plays bass in the SWR Symphonieorchester; but he has been singled out because a bass has been added to the string quartet in the performance of the Opus 34 quintet (meaning that it has become a sextet)!

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