Seven years before his death in 1897, Johannes Brahms made plans to retire from composition. But in March 1891, he heard performances by the stellar German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Months later, Brahms completed the first of four chamber works for him, including the extraordinary Clarinet Quintet.
The fruitful synergy that has long existed between composers and musicians is clearly evident in the clarinet repertoire. Mozart wrote several masterpieces for the 18th-century Austrian virtuoso Anton Stadler. Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith and Francis Poulenc created notable works at the request of the versatile American jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Steve Reich and Toru Takemitsu were among those inspired in recent decades by the indefatigable American soloist Richard Stoltzman.
Today, the repertoire continues to evolve as intrepid clarinetists of a new generation serve as muses for composers. They include 41-year-old Swedish superstar Martin Fröst, who will stick to the conventional repertoire on Friday and Saturday when he performs Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival; 39-year-old German clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann, whose “Elegie” for clarinet and orchestra will be released in the U.S. by ECM in November; and 31-year-old José Franch-Ballester, a Spanish-born, U.S.-based rising talent who couples new concertos by compatriots Oscar Navarro and Andrès Valero-Castells on a program at the Palau de la Musica in Valencia on Sept. 30.
Probably invented around 1700 by the Denner family of instrument makers in what is now Nuremberg, Germany, the clarinet was a Johnny-come-lately to the symphony orchestra compared with most other woodwinds. But the clarinet’s mellifluous tone and wide range—from a rich baritone to a crystalline soprano—quickly attracted composers and musicians.
Over the centuries, the number of keys on the instrument increased. Significant improvements were introduced, including the addition of ring keys to open or close tone holes and the adoption of new fingering systems. Among professionals today, clarinets with 18 keys and six ring keys rival the standard 17-key, six-ring model. According to clarinet designer Morrie Bakun of Bakun Musical Services in Vancouver, electronic tuning devices and new production methods have fostered greater accuracy of intonation and ease of playing during the past 25 years.
Advances like these have helped raise performance standards to higher levels, inspiring composers to devise ever new challenges. Which may cause initial agita among musicians. Mr. Widmann, whose own daunting compositions have been performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, was “shocked” when he received the score for Wolfgang Rihm’s Music for Clarinet and Orchestra. About 40 minutes long, it contains only one extended break for the soloist. “I asked myself, how will my lips survive this piece,” Mr. Widmann recalled in May during an interview backstage at New York’s Carnegie Hall after an impressive program of his music. “I didn’t think I could do it, but now I play it regularly.”
Mr. Fröst was similarly flummoxed by early attempts to learn Anders Hillborg’s “Peacock Tales,” which incorporates mime and movement into the soloist’s part. “It felt like I was playing the piano with five hands,” he said over lunch in June during California’s Ojai Festival, where he gave supremely agile performances as soloist and chamber musician. Yet after weeks of Mr. Fröst practicing and working with dancers, the music and choreography became so intertwined that he had to relearn the piece to record it from a stationary position. (The ingratiating 19-minute chamber version, one of five created by Mr. Hillborg, is available on “Dances to a Black Pipe,” Mr. Fröst’s album for BIS.)
During the 1960s and ’70s, avant-garde composers pushed the clarinet into new sonic realms with extended techniques like multiphonics and key clicking. Their successors are more stylistically eclectic. Mr. Widmann’s music includes such effects but melds an atonal palette with Romantic-era nostalgia or microtonal tunings. Mr. Hillborg’s “Peacock Tales” draws inspiration from Giacomo Puccini and jazz. It also has antecedents in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Harlequin,” a solo work from 1975 that asks the clarinetist to perform while cavorting around the stage. “Why not write a concerto this way?” proposed Mr. Fröst to Mr. Hillborg.
“Peacock Tales” turns the tall, long-legged clarinetist into an actor who struts around in a devilish peacock mask, blending or interspersing his playing with graceful pirouettes, dance steps and mime gestures. At Ojai, he demonstrated characteristic aplomb and consummate skill, though he played the shortest, less musically gratifying version for clarinet and tape.
Other composers continue to employ “found” instruments. “Rare Air,” a piece by David Felder for the invariably venturesome Jean Kopperud, has her playing a garden hose in the first movement. Interdisciplinary collaborations are on the rise. In 2009, Mr. Widmann joined forces with leading German artist Anselm Kiefer for “Am Anfang” (“In the Beginning”), a hybrid art installation and music-theater piece for the Opéra Bastille.
The concertos for Mr. Franch-Ballester by Messrs. Navarro and Valero-Castells pursue populist aims, requiring the clarinetist to simulate ethnic instruments or the inflections of Valencian folk singers. During the works’ creation, Mr. Franch-Ballester met regularly for several months with each composer. “We learned from each other,” said the clarinetist, who has given premieres of works by Kenji Bunch and Paul Schoenfield. “It was like a musical lab.”
Thus the evolution of the clarinet repertoire continues apace. In November, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic will give the premiere of Danish composer Bent Sørenson’s “Serenidad,” a piece for clarinet and orchestra with Mr. Fröst as soloist. “For me,” Mr. Sørensen said, “the inspiration is not so much the clarinet as it is Martin and the clarinet.”
Ms. Jepson writes about classical music for the Journal
Fuente: The Wall Street Journal