Enticingly entitled Viennese Vogue, this program of chamber music for strings and clarinet featured the music of three Viennese composers of the late 18th and early 19th century.
The Clarinet Quartet in E flat major (1808) by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Franz Schubert’s String Trio in B flat major (1808) and Mozart’s much loved Clarinet Quintet in A major (1789) were performed by members of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO) in the David Li Sound Gallery, Monash University.
In her introduction, Nicole van Bruggen, international clarinet virtuoso, specialist in historically informed performance and co-artistic director of ARCO, provided a brief history of the Orchestra which celebrates its 10th Anniversary in 2023. Within its twin goals of performance and education, ARCO presents concerts of both orchestral and chamber music that are historical informed and played on period instruments.
With great enthusiasm, van Bruggen informed us that this concert would showcase, in particular, two rare instruments (both reproductions): a clarinet from around 1800 and the very rarely heard basset clarinet from the late 1700s – the instrument so loved by Mozart. At this point the audience realised they were about the hear something very special. We were not disappointed!
The concert began with the Clarinet Quartet in E flat major (1808) by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). A student of Mozart and a composer and pianist of high renown in his own time, Hummel has been largely – and many would say undeservedly – forgotten, overshadowed as he was by the genius of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, his contemporaries in the Viennese music scene. Hummel’s Clarinet Quartet is a skilfully structured and innovative piece that was performed with poise and sensitivity by the members of the ensemble: Nicole van Bruggen (clarinet), Peter Clark (violin), Simon Oswell (viola) and Daniel Yeadon (cello).
Unusually for its time, Hummel gives equal weight to the each of the four parts, passing the thematic material between the instruments and creating a work of variety and contrast with suspense-filled double pianissimos and surprising changes of mood. The inclusion of Bruggen’s period clarinet in this performance hugely enhanced the blend of sound colours. Whereas the modern clarinet (dating from the end of the 19th century) with its larger dynamic range and brightness of tone can easily dominate an ensemble, here the muted, warmer sound of the period clarinet resulted in more finely balanced ensemble playing that was a joy to experience.
The Quartet’s flowing but sometimes busy and intense first movement (Allegro moderato) with melodic themes introduced by the clarinet, was followed by a fast-paced and more boisterous movement, La Seccatura, which translated, means “nuisance” or “bother”. In this movement, each instrument played in a different time signature; an amusing and highly original device for the times. Hummel’s light-hearted intentions were well-realised in this exciting movement, which resembled a fast romp or chase played with virtuosic facility by all members of the ensemble. In the Andante, the mood changed to something more reflective where the string parts blended to create a closely-knit, darker accompaniment to van Bruggen’s delicately expressive clarinet line. The many delights of this performance of the Quartet were carried through to the dancing Rondo with its foot tapping theme reminiscent of Austrian folk music.
Well-placed between the Hummel’s Clarinet Quartet and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet was Schubert’s early mini-masterpiece, the String Trio in B flat major, K581 composed in 1816 when he was 19 years ago. Only the first movement (Allegro) and part of the second (Andante sostenuto) were completed by Schubert but it remains a musical gem. Here the ensemble players were in their element. The stylish, flowing, melodic passages of the first movement were followed by the restrained, yearning tone of the Andante. Peter Clark played with great vigour and intention and was supported by the highly accomplished Simon Oswell and Daniel Yeadon. As a composer who wrote pieces largely for gifted amateurs, which were performed in intimate settings, the David Li Sound Gallery was a perfect setting for this work.
Unlike Hummel’s Clarinet Quartet, Mozart’s brilliant work for clarinet and strings, the Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581 (1789) has been neither overlooked nor rarely performed, but rarely, if ever, do we hear it played on a basset clarinet. This is not surprising as very few 18th century basset clarinets were ever made. One of these was used by the virtuoso clarinet player, Anton Stadler, to perform the Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet that Mozart was inspired to write for him. Following those performances, however, the instrument mysteriously disappeared and no pieces were written for it thereafter.
For this performance of the Quintet, Nicole van Bruggen played an exact replica made for her by French instrument maker, Agnès Gueroult in 2006. An instrument of great warmth and flexibility of tone, the basset clarinet’s additional lower notes added greatly to the richness of the lower tones of the cello and to the ensemble as a whole.
Composed in four movements, the Quintet is replete with musical ideas and wide variations in tempi and mood that provided a perfect canvas for the ensemble to employ their technique and musicality to the full. As with the Hummel quintet, which came after it, the clarinet in Mozart’s Quintet is an equal partner to the strings with themes and motifs being shared in ever-changing combinations around the ensemble. The resonant sound of the viola and violin combined with the low notes of the basset clarinet, for instance, were played with great effect in the second movement (Larghetto). Taken at a moderate but not slow pace, this movement allowed van Bruggen’s warm, well articulated sound in the arpeggios and the delicacy of her careful phrasing to come through. The fine melodies and tripping rhythms of the Minuet and Trio (of which there are two) were played with elegance and elan, but the trios may have benefitted from more legato playing and smoother phrasing, particularly in the second Trio where the clarinet doesn’t feature.
Much could be said about the brilliance of the playing in the final Rondo that completed the piece. At this stage, the musicians seemed to inhabit the music, rather than play it. The pace was easy and not rushed in the first section with lyrical, stretched-out viola phrases in the second. Julia Russoniello on the second violin, contributed sensitively to the upper parts. In its up and down running arpeggios, the basset clarinet sounded like bubbling water, and then, it was full pelt to a magnificent end.
Of special note in this performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet was van Bruggen’s use of ornamentation, most particularly in the final Rondo (Allegretto). Musicians generally avoid the addition of ornaments in Mozart’s compositions but here they were tastefully improvised on the basset clarinet and served to pleasantly embellish and not interrupt the musical line. Overall, the performance was an intelligent and highly enjoyable rendering of this work that has been so well loved over the centuries by musicians and audiences alike.
Maree Gladwin reviewed Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra: Viennese Vogue, performed at the David Li Sound Gallery, Monash University on March 7, 2023.