WEBER: Clarinet Quintet, Op. 34 / Grand Duo Concertant (Auer Quartet/ Ibolya Toth/ Jeno Jando/ Kalman Berkes) (Naxos: 8.553122)
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Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826)
Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, Op. 34 (J.182)
Introduction, Theme and Variations in B flat major, Op. posth.
Grand Duo Concertant in E flat major, Op. 48 (J.204)
Seven Variations on a Theme from Silvana in B flat major, Op. 33 (J.128)
It was natural that there should be an element of the operatic in the music of Weber. The composer of the first great Romantic German opera, Der Freischutz, spent much of his childhood with the peripatetic theatre company directed by his father, Franz Anton Weber, uncle of Mozart's wife Constanze and, like his brother, at one time a member of the famous Mannheim orchestra. At the time of Weber's birth his father was still in the service of the Bishop of Lübeck and during the course of an extended visit to Vienna had taken a second wife, an actress and singer, who became an important member of the family theatre company established in 1788.
Weber's musical gifts were fostered by his father, who saw in his youngest son the possibility of a second Mozart. Travel brought the chance of varied if inconsistent study, in Salzburg with Michael Haydn and elsewhere with musicians of lesser ability. His second opera was performed in Freiberg in 1800, followed by a third in Augsburg in 1803. Lessons with the Abbe Vogler, the Abt Vogler of Robert Browning's poem, led to a position as Kapellmeister in Breslau in 1804, brought to a premature end through the hostility of musicians long established in the city and through the accidental drinking of engraving acid, left by his father in a wine-bottle.
A brief and idyllic period in the service of Duke Eugen of Württemberg-Öls at Carlsruhe was followed by three years as secretary to Duke Ludwig of Württemberg, a younger brother of the reigning Duke. The financial dealings of his father, who had joined him there, led to imprisonment and expulsion, and a return to a career as an active musician, at first principally as a pianist, appearing in the principal cities of Germany. A short stay in Berlin proved fruitful, before his appointment to the opera in Prague in 1813, In 1817 he was invited to Dresden, where it was hoped he would establish German opera, although the first performance of Der Freischütz was given in Berlin in 1821.
While the rival Italian opera in Dresden continued to cause Weber trouble, he was invited to write an opera for Vienna. Euryanthe, described as a grand heroic-Romantic opera, with a libretto by the blue-stocking authoress of Schubert's Rosamunde, Helmina von Chezy, had a mixed reception.
In spite of deteriorating health, the result of tuberculosis, Weber accepted a commission from Covent Garden for an English opera, Oberon, which was first performed there in April 1826 under the direction of the composer. A pioneer in the use of the conductor's baton, his first appearance with this potential weapon caused initial alarm among English musicians at his possibly aggressive intentions. The English weather could only further damage his health and he died during the night of 4th June on the eve of his intended departure for Germany.
Weber's achievement was both considerable and influential. In German opera he had opened a new and rich vein that subsequent composers were to explore: as an orchestrator he demonstrated new possibilities, particularly in the handling of wind instruments: as a conductor and director of performances he instituted a number of reforms, as he had first attempted as an adolescent Kapellmeister in Breslau. In style his music follows classical principles of clarity, with a particular lyrical facility shown both in his operas and his instrumental and vocal compositions.
Weber's three concertos for clarinet were written in 1811 for the Munich clarinettist Heinrich Barmann, who had served as a Prussian army bandsman at Potsdam, before joining the Munich orchestra, where the earlier traditions of Mannheim were continued. Weber had met Barmann at Darmstadt, during the course of a concert tour that then took him to Munich, where he renewed the acquaintance. It was towards the end of the same year that Weber wrote his Seven Variations on a Theme from Silvana, for clarinet and piano. It was at the same period that he first began work on his Clarinet Quintet, again designed for Barmann, a composition that he completed finally in 1815, after giving it his intermittent attention. In the opening Allegro, a tripartite sonata-form movement, chief melodic interest centres on the clarinet, idiomatically handled. The second movement Fantasia gives the instrument an aria in which both mellifluousness of tone and agility can be displayed, while the Minuet again exploits the full range of the clarinet. The Quintet ends with bravura writing for Barmann in a final brilliant display.
The Introduction, Theme and Variations for clarinet and string quartet, more recently published and attributed to Weber, is now generally supposed to be spurious. The work opens with an Adagio introduction, a brief prelude to the Allegretto theme, followed by six variations, the first in semiquavers, the second in triplet semiquavers, the third in mixed rhythms, the fourth in rapider demi-semiquavers, the fifth a G minor Adagio with a cadenza leading to the triplet rhythm sixth. The work ends in a final Allegro assai.
The Andante con moto and Rondo of the Grand Duo Concertant were written first and apparently performed with Barmann at a public concert in Munich in 1815. The first movement was added the following year. Here clarinet and piano share the virtuoso material in a display that has about it more of the concerto than the sonata. The clarinet presents the theme of the second movement Andante con moto, over gentle and full chords from the piano, which has its own characteristic thematic material to offer. The Grand Duo ends with a Rondo in which, again, the performers share the honours, a token not only of Barmann's abilities but also of Weber's own prowess as a pianist.
Weber completed his opera Silvana in 1810, reworking material from some ten years before. The work suffers under a positive disadvantage in that the heroine of the title, Silvana, is dumb until the final scene, when her voice and true identity are restored. It was first performed in Frankfurt in 1811, with Caroline Brandt, Weber's future wife, in the title-role, and won moderate success. The Seven Variations on a Theme from silvana, is based on an aria for Mechtilde, the principal female singing character, unwillingly betrothed to the reluctant Rudolf, who himself has been captivated by the mysterious Silvana. The theme, with its typically Weberian dotted rhythms, is announced by the clarinet, which then proceeds to a livelier triplet version, followed by a variation for piano alone. The third variation is marked Molto adagio, quasi fantasia and provides the clarinet with a chance for virtuoso display. The piano is alone in the fourth variation, marked animato e con fuoco, a mood continued by the clarinet in the variation that follows. A sixth version of the material, marked Lento and in B flat minor, is marked by piano tremolos and a brief passage of clarinet recitative, leading to an Allegro of dynamic contrast and the final return of the theme in a gentle conclusion.
The distinguished Hungarian clarinettist Kalman Berkes took his degree at the Budapest Liszt Music Academy in 1972, winning second prize at the Geneva International Competition two years later and in 1975 in Mun