Although these three discs cover all six of Weber’s solo clarinet works (together with one of doubtful origin) there is unfortunately no one piece common to all three making absolute direct comparison impossible. Nonetheless it is fascinating to hear three quite different approaches to this music with each player bringing highly individual qualities – a welcome relief in an age of seemingly increasing blandness. Weber wrote all of these works for Heinrich Baermann, with the two concertos, the Concertino and the Theme and Variations all dating from 1811, the Quintet (which was also started in the same year) finally completed in 1815 and the Grand duo concertant a year later.
The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings is more overtly virtuosic than the great quintets of Mozart and Brahms but also features some wonderfully operatic writing. The two versions given here are superb with both Kriikku and Shifrin emphasising the dramatic elements. For me David Shifrin gives the most complete interpretation with Kari Kriikku opting for a rather more flashy account at the expense of some of the more subtle musical possibilities; and he appears to take some questionable liberties with dynamic markings. One example where this is not so successful occurs at the start of the third movement (Menuetto) where the clarinet arpeggios should be played forte to contrast with a piano response from the strings, yet Kriikku plays at a similar level to the strings thereby spoiling the fun, especially as Weber writes an unexpected pianissimo version for the clarinet just before the start of the Trio. In fact Kriikku plays this movement at an incredible speed, displaying tremendous technique and tonguing ability but perhaps sacrificing some of the charm of what, in any case, should really be termed scherzo rather than minuet.
David Shifrin’s performance is outstanding in every way; he makes a beautifully warm and expressive sound in the lyrical passages, makes the bravura writing sound effortless and brings out the full range of moods in this music, including one which is often missed: humour. It is all too easy for the florid passages to turn into a sterile and pointless technical exercise, especially since they are nowhere near as difficult to perform on modern clarinets as on Baermann’s ten-keyed instrument. Shifrin manages to sound as if he and his colleagues are really having fun and I for once found this amusing and enjoyable rather than merely technically dazzling. In the slow movement, whereas Kriikku occasionally exaggerates in order to maximise the effect, Shifrin lets the music take its own course giving a less contrived result.
The short single-movement Concertino in E flat is familiar to all clarinettists and is probably the most frequently performed of the three concertante pieces. Listening to the two accounts offered here it is apparent right from the opening tutti C minor chord that the performance by Kari Kriikku with the Finnish RSO is quite simply in a different class from that of Emma Johnson and the ECO. The sincerity and integrity of Johnson’s musicianship is never in question and, as always, she plays with great feeling and sensitivity, but she has a tendency to bulge on individual notes and, in my opinion, use a rather pronounced vibrato for too much of the time, giving a somewhat one-dimensional picture. She takes more relaxed tempi than Kriikku and overall offers a fairly routine rendition. The orchestral introduction to Kriikku’s version is electrifying and instantly sets the tone for what proves to be a far more varied and subtle reading by the soloist.
The gulf between these two interpreters is even wider in the Concerto No. 1 in F minor, a considerably more substantial piece in terms of its expressive requirements. The orchestral opening of Kriikku’s account is immediately lean and urgent, whereas the ECO plays at a slower tempo with a less focused sound and consequently a less engaging result. Kari Kriikku is absolutely sensational throughout this work and keeps the listener riveted by his wonderful virtuosity and range of colours, contrasting utterly brilliant passagework with beautifully controlled phrasing. He also provides an amazingly daring and controversial first movement cadenza which at one point sounds decidedly 20th-century with its use of multiphonics and tremolandi. One assumes that his justification for this is that such cadenzas were designed to stretch the technique of the soloist and to some extent ‘shock’ the audience. Whether it is appropriate to continue this tradition by incorporating contemporary devices is open to debate, but it certainly succeeded in keeping my full attention.
His tempi throughout are faster that Johnson’s and, for me, more convincing, especially the poco animato C minor episode in the slow movement which can seem unduly ponderous. In this movement particularly, Kari Kriikku has a wonderful sense of line and his controlled and even sound makes for a greater feeling of tranquillity. Overall this is among the most exciting interpretations that I have heard.
The Grand duo concertant, recorded several years after the orchestral works, was for me the most successful item of Emma Johnson’s set and, although I still find some of the more exuberant passages too coarse for my taste, she brings a great deal of warmth and tenderness to the lyrical phrases. David Shifrin is slightly less impressive in this work than in the Quintet, but still provides a more mature reading than Johnson by resisting the temptation to invest more expression than is needed.