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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Australia

Herr Stadler’s One and Only Basset Clarinet Resurrected: Craig Hill Plays Mozart’s Concerto, also Mozart’s Violin Concerto with Madeleine Easton and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides on Period Instruments of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

L. Benett, "La Grotte de Fingal" from the original Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's 'Le Rayon-Vert.'
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"Au-delà, l'horizon de ciel et d'eau..." L. Benett's drawing of 'La Grotte de Fingal' from the original Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's 'Le Rayon-Vert.'
“Au-delà, l’horizon de ciel et d’eau…” L. Benett’s drawing of ‘La Grotte de Fingal’ from the original Hetzel edition of Jules Verne’s ‘Le Rayon-Vert.’

City Recital Hall, Sydney: 24 October 2012
travels to Melbourne 27 and 28 October, then to Sydney 31 October and 2 and 3 November
to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM at 1 PM Tuesday 30 October (Australian Eastern Standard Time)

Mozart – Divertimento K. 136
Mozart – Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622
Craig Hill – basset clarinet
Mozart – Violin concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216
Madeleine Easton – violin
MendelssohnDie Hebriden, opus 26 (“die Fingalshöhle”)

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Paul Dyer – artistic director and conductor

Drawing of Anton Stadler's basset clarinet from the contemporary program discovered by Pamela Poulin in RIga in 1992.
Drawing of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet from the contemporary program discovered by Pamela Poulin in RIga in 1992.

It wouldn’t necessarily be very difficult for historic performance practice to degenerate into the “flavor of the month” endlessly seeking novelty, ironically enough, in newest old bizarre instrument never before heard by modern ears, or into a cliquey “earlier than thou” competition. Perhaps we are just beyond this stage, or perhaps the 20 years since Pamela Poulin’s exciting discovery of the appearance of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet — we haven’t found a surviving original specimen of the ephemeral instrument — has given time for experimentation and to rediscover the technique and the soul of the instrument and the “novelty” part has worn off a bit. The beauty of the basset clarinet’s voice, not so much unfamiliar or even unique, as even more clarinetish than a usual clarinet, is exactly fitting to Mozart’s music, giving a fascinating insight into the idea that a period’s instrumentarium exactly befits the period’s music, and the question whether the instruments evolve to fit the new music or the music evolves to take advantage of the new instruments, or both at once. The clarinet generally speaking having such a “normal” tone between the extremes of the more penetrating and sharp older cousin oboe and small-bird-like ancient cousin flute, fills in an aching space in the orchestra and makes it hard to believe (in retrospect) that it became a regular in European orchestras as late as it did. Indeed Mozart’s life coincided with this change. His letters home from Mannheim, where he first encountered clarinets in orchestral music, read like a revelation he was so enthusiastic about them, and he immediately took to composing in the new woodwind texture. Anton Stadler (his son Johann played the other clarinet in some of Mozart’s symphonies, as in Mozart’s last public concert in early 1791) as a friend and “early adopter,” or perhaps only adopter, of the basset clarinet, such a perfect solo instrument, too perfect, at least for its virtuosic possibilities but more importantly for its expressive voice, no doubt created inspiration and opportunity to write a concerto for it. It is also thought that Mozart and Stadler intended a basset clarinet for the clarinet quintet of two years before (K. 581). Perhaps a shade of that original inspiration sparks performers today. Mozart hadn’t written a concerto for three years (the last piano concerto K. 595 was probably begun in 1788 and finished in late 17901), having practically “perfected” the piano concerto (but no doubt he could have had more ideas, judging from the depth of those he wrote), the following concerto turned out to be for clarinet. If the violin concerto would take the 19th century to “perfect” — according to conventional wisdom anyhow — Madeleine Easton’s performance of Mozart’s third violin concerto brought that notion into question (see below). And between the very human piano and violin, it is not common to hear concertos for the stringless family, so it is surprising and amazing to hear such a satisfying concerto for clarinet, as satisfying as any for piano or violin, or at the least it distracts a listener from making the comparison. This is in a large way due to the presence of the resurrected basset clarinet in such a deeply satisfying performance with such a close, understanding rapport between the less familiar clarinet and the more familiar orchestral members.

First to mention the Mozart divertimento, which was at first to be just the first Allegro movement but Paul Dyer and the orchestra changed their minds at the last minute and played the entire piece in what would have been a generous concert anyway. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra when they err (as any human musician, let alone orchestra must from time to time) it is always in the most human way and never on the side of too cool or too mechanical or reserved, so if the divertimento sounded a bit smudged especially in the louder crescendoes, if the strings’ clarity was somewhat compromised, they always played enthusiastically in a way which stemmed from the heart of the music. Perhaps Paul Dyer should have conducted standing up (as he did such good effect in the Mendelssohn, see below), beating time, or giving precise cues rather than directing from the fortepiano keyboard, but in this piece the keyboard does add something to the music, a certain detail to Mozart’s harmonic plan. Elsewhere, the detail in the strings did come through, especially in the at times soloistic first violin part given to Madeleine Easton, as well as the subtle spatial effect from the dialogue between first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage, and the basses were very distinct, well outlined, rhythmically.

Craig Hill rehearses Mozart's basset clarinet concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Craig Hill rehearses Mozart’s basset clarinet concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.

The clarinet concerto unfortunately no longer exists in its original form, the manuscript is lost and the version published is a revised one which lifts the low basset clarinet notes up into the reach of the normal clarinet, the version which mere mortals could play. Stadler, in Prague, staying on from the performances of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for the Bohemian coronation of Leopold II, in which he played the obbligato basset horn part Mozart wrote for him, the last performance being 30 September, received the music for the concerto in the week before its first performance there on 16 October 1791. It was one of the many very profound pieces Mozart created in that extraordinary last year of his life. He only got the commission for Tito probably in mid July for the first performance on 6 September, finishing it at the last moment, working on it in his coach on the way to Prague from Vienna. The Magic Flute’s first performance was 30 September, though Mozart got the commission from Schikenader in the spring, so, though he would have given each composition its own time in writing them sequentially, he had both operas as well as the concerto and the Requiem, also commissioned of him in the spring, on his mind at once — there is a story of Mozart in Prague, while at coffeehouse with his friends, sitting down to the piano and playing the quintet from Act II of The Flute. He also wrote the Little Masonic Cantata and performed it on 15 November.2 Neither the concerto nor the other pieces betray any sense of a busy, overworked mind in a sick body. Whoever or however the concerto has been re-tailored, or rather restored, for Craig Hill’s basset clarinet (the program doesn’t say) it sounds very natural where it dips into the extended bottom range. Hill describes his experiments over the years recreating the technique of the instrument (as important as the proper construction of the instrument) which never really had much of a school (I don’t believe there is any evidence Stadler taught it to his son) and didn’t seem to survive Stadler — or Mozart for that matter. It is quite an awkward instrument, as Hill explains, the thumb and lips must be free and cannot do much to support the instrument, so he plays seated with the clarinet between his legs, almost as if it were a clarinetto da gamba. This way he found he could use his knee to press a button and get one note lower, which he does once in the concerto, slightly self-consciously perhaps. He clearly goes into a state of deep concentration when he plays and the familiarity of the piece in this case is constructive, his fingers flutter as if on their own, freeing his mind for the deep expression.

Craig Hill playing the basset clarinet with Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Craig Hill playing the basset clarinet with Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo by Steven Godbee.

The basset clarinet’s voice is worthy of the birds, whether the small and medium sized morning ones at the top register, or the night birds of the lower register (could this owl have swooped silently across from the Queen of the Night?), but if trees could speak, they would no doubt sound like this too — the instrument at times sounds something like Tolkien must have meant meant his Ents to sound. But the expressiveness of his playing, too deep and moving to be any one or several things, implied a bottomless depth of meaning to the music, which like its sibling-in-the-womb The Magic Flute, Mozart set out to write accessibly to any concert going Bohemian, if not to any concert going Austro-Hungarian, of the 18th Century, and to appeal to connoisseurs, and of course himself and Anton Stadler, too. The music is thus unevasive and deceptively straight; it comes closer than Wagner or Berlioz to perpetual melody, but the harmonic and melodic language contains meaning in between the “lines.” The orchestra seemed focussed to a point by Hill’s extraordinary playing, to an unusual close rapport between orchestra and soloist and among the orchestra members, with extremely articulate phrasing on both sides, especially evident in those parts where the orchestra finishes the basset clarinet’s phrases. This closeness carried through into the violin concerto in an easier way and also into the Mendelssohn overture in a fascinating transformed way. If this rapport in the orchestra and the remarkable sense of space of the basset clarinet’s tone seemed like a landscape with great depth and detail and span, with Mozart’s detailed and generous orchestration so lucid, at the same time paradoxically the extremely human voice of the clarinet met conversationally by the orchestra gave this sense of landscape the kind of humanity which sits much more comfortably on art than anthropomorphism does on nature.

Craig Hill with his basset clarinet. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Craig Hill with his basset clarinet. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Madeleine Easton rehearses the Mozart concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Madeleine Easton rehearses the Mozart concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, like all his concerti for violin, are youthful pieces, or at least were written when he was very young, but then again he was never anything but young. Mozart gave up playing the violin a few years after he wrote this piece mainly playing the piano afterward, composing nearly all his concerti for the piano, but Madeleine Easton approached the concerto with such a serious attitude and completely unselfconsciously commitment that it stood fine on its own, “even” next to the “late” Mozart clarinet concerto. Her playing is unique and the lucidity of Mozart’s writing shone on the period instruments, especially on the sweet, tender, yet very human and organic quality of her 1682 Grancino. The lower register was incredibly liquid, able to speak the language and accent of the flutes and bassoons, the high register though was very bright, even sharp at times, carrying without penetrating, and always very buoyant. Her style is distinct too, self-possessed and determined, but also humble in a way, never showy. She gave the orchestra attention, spending some moments facing them and conducting from the bow, though Paul Dyer usual directs he played discrete chords on the fortepiano, and she turned to face the audience without ever losing the orchestra. It would incidentally be very fun to hear these two play Mozart’s double concerto for piano and violin (K. 315f from the fragment K. Anh. 56), though unfinished, it has been reconstructed convincingly, but maybe another time? Anyway the dialogue was particularly articulate, the rapport here maybe a slightly softer focus than with Craig Hill (metaphorically speaking, they played just as precisely as before) in a way which suited the interpretation, but full of spirit and the music was allowed its many dimensions.

Madeleine Easton plays Mozart’s 3rd violin concerto with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo by Steven Godbee.

Paul Dyer conducted the Mendelssohn overture standing before the orchestra, with the same period instruments, but rearranged into symphony orchestra formation with first and second violins on the left, and cellos and violas and basses on the right, winds on a raised platform in the middle behind, flanked by horns (left) and natural trumpets (right) and timpani. The effect is more symphonic and less conversational in texture, though very subtly so, if that is even a true dichotomy. Like Mozart, though in a different style in practice, Mendelssohn gives much detail to “secondary” instruments and the period instruments, reveal this dimension to Mendelssohn’s expression very clearly. It sounded not like a totally new piece, it was still very familiar, but much more itself, the freshness of the texture opening the ears as sea spray opens the nose and chest with a thrill, and the music was much more than mere tone painting or program music. But it is a revelation. Presumably Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, the epitome of the symphony halls’ steely strung romantic concerto, is meant to be heard on the same instruments, though Baroque music is the ABO’s main squeeze, perhaps Madeleine Easton and Paul Dyer will get to it sometime. The orchestra’s close dialogue in the concerti translated and carried over into a very tight symphonic rapport, as if the conversation having naturally run its course, gave way to a more mysterious, nonverbal though no less articulate cooperation. Paul Dyer does not very often conduct from his feet with his hands, usually directing Baroque and classical concerti from the keyboard. He is a very warm intuitive conductor with the characteristic serious, intellectual musical care of a fine keyboardist-kapellmeister, or keyboardist-artistic director, as they say now, without seeming to coddle his musicians. His gestures are precise and clear, and the precision carried across to the orchestra and carried across in turn to the audience (except maybe the few doofuses who were talking in the music) even in the bright, nontrivial acoustic of the recital hall.

Paul Dyer and Madeleine Easton in rehearsal. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Paul Dyer and Madeleine Easton in rehearsal. Photo by Steven Godbee.
  1. see H. C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year
  2. Ibid. in which there is much more detail and complexity.

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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