Flow is the title of a new album featuring Belgian clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe wielding the less common basset clarinet. Invented in the 1770s by Theodor Lotz (who had previously created the basset horn), the purpose of the instrument was in part to extend the lower range of the clarinet. The basset clarinet became popularised in the following decade thanks largely to performer Anton Stadler, who developed the instrument, extending its range downwards even further. Inspired by both his lyrical style of playing (likened to the human voice) and the possibilities of the instrument itself, many composers began to write works for Stadler, the most famous being Mozart, whose Clarinet Quintet (1789) and Clarinet Concerto (1791) were both composed specifically for Stadler’s basset clarinet.
Here’s where things get unfortunate. First, the basset clarinet (and basset horn) soon faded from popularity, the instruments stopped being made, and in due course our understanding of exactly how they operated became less clear. Second, the autograph score of Mozart’s concerto was lost, and the only extant score is of a subsequent reworking of the piece (by an unknown arranger, published in 1802) for the ordinary clarinet in A, which is the version usually heard today. Over a century and a half then passed until, in the 1960s, it was realised that the concerto was actually intended for basset clarinet, and the attempt was made to restore the piece back to Mozart’s original intentions, exploiting the extended lower register of the instrument.
So, on the one hand, what we have on this recording is a double whammy of educated guesswork: a version of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto that’s an approximation of what we think Mozart would have originally written, performed on a recreated instrument that’s an approximation of how we think it would have been originally built. On the other hand, it’s a double boon in terms of authenticity, allowing a relatively rare opportunity to hear this wonderful concerto in a manner much closer to what Mozart had in mind.
The first and most important thing to say is that this is a genuinely outstanding performance of the piece. Played by Van Wauwe with the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Andrew Manze, the first movement is beautifully exuberant, full of vibrancy and vivacity. Van Wauwe clearly revels in the fluidity and filigree of Mozart’s material, and the orchestra brings superb clarity to the inner parts and details. Anyone who knows anything about the final year of Mozart’s life will find it impossible not to think of the illness and poverty he was living through and be all the more amazed at the uplifted, optimistic tone permeating this concerto. Reflecting on this only makes the second movement sound all the more implausible in this recording, Manze making the orchestral lines really soar, without the slightest hint of melancholy or wistfulness; the happiness encapsulated here is genuine and absolute. The closing Rondo is rendered a playful game of ideas passed back and forth both between the soloist and the orchestra as well as between different registers by the soloist, but again, any trace of mischief or cheekiness (the approach taken by some performers) is absent, Van Wauwe preferring to continue to channel the effervescent lyricism that characterises the concerto as a whole. This comes to the fore in the contrasting episodes of the Rondo where she and the orchestra delicately imbue the music with a more intimate quality.
The restored basset clarinet version of the concerto, as heard here, is not without its faults. There’s a couple of occasions where the repositioning of the solo part just sounds wrong. The most obvious example comes in the F# minor episode of the Rondo, where the repeat of its melody two octaves lower has had to be distorted as the instrument can’t go low enough. (Apropos: in his famous 1969 article ‘Mozart and the Basset Clarinet‘, Alan Hacker did not recommend that this phrase be lowered; and the distorted result is highlighted in Colin Lawson’s 1987 article ‘The basset clarinet revived‘.) It’s very hard to believe Mozart would have written it like that, the smoothly flowing melodic echo suddenly stuck in its tracks, stupidly forced to play the same note three times in a row. At the same time, though, i’m conscious of the fact that i got to know the piece via the version for clarinet in A – where the repeat (one octave lower, rather than two) is exact – so that’s bound to be influencing in part how i perceive the basset clarinet version. Nonetheless, this is just a very minor niggle; elsewhere in the concerto, the lower register of the basset clarinet sounds positively wonderful and goes a long way to demonstrating exactly what it was that got Mozart so excited about it in the first place. It’s a gorgeous, exhilarating performance of a work, and an instrument, that’s had a difficult life.
The Mozart is paired on this album with a new concerto from Belgian composer Wim Henderickx, taking inspiration from the world of yoga, which forms an important part of Van Wauwe’s performance practice. Composed for basset clarinet, orchestra and electronics, the concerto’s title, SUTRA, references the ancient Sanskrit texts concerned with yoga theory and practice. Beyond that, there’s a decision to be made whether or not to wade through the pseudo-explicatory accompanying programme notes / dogma regarding each of its four movements (which are strongly redolent of the kind of thing John Tavener used to couch his music within). It honestly doesn’t make a lot of difference since Henderickx has been sure to pick and choose from yoga’s tenets so as to construct an entirely familiar 4-movement structure with the usual fast and slow movements.
It’s a curious piece, and while there are many times when it seems too rooted in convention to take terribly seriously, there are equally many times when it’s hard not to simply be carried along by its exuberance. That in itself makes it a reasonable companion to the Mozart. This is especially the case in the third movement, ‘Dharana: mind concentration’, a light, boisterous romp packed with filmic frivolity (it would fit perfectly in a comedic cinematic context). It’s pretty much impossible to feel a plausible connection between music like this and Dharana’s definition as “the elimination of fluctuations and disturbances in the mental state in order to develop a single-pointed concentration”, which only stresses the fact that taking the yoga connection too seriously often doesn’t make any meaningful sense – not that it matters. On the contrary, the fourth movement, ‘Samadhi: intense spiritual union’, certainly does live up to its associations, Henderickx creating a sensuous, opulent world of softness and shimmer, through which Van Wauwe’s clarinet seductively slides around. Though over-familiar in terms of language, there are moments of undeniable beauty, especially in the dialogue between various solo instruments and the basset clarinet.
The opening two movements are stronger. ‘Pranayama: breath of life’ begins the work, emerging from a nebulous mixture of wind sounds and light, glancing chimes, establishing an environment rooted on and oscillating around a clear pitch centre (something that features in the other movements as well). An abrupt surge in pace halfway through gives the impression that the preceding sighs and undulating strands had more pent-up energy than was obvious, leading to an exciting climax, the harmony still static, underpinned by deep pedal notes. The decision here, and in two other movements, to include passages where the keyword in the movement’s title is chanted is a dubious one; in general, it feels strange and limiting, the broad scope and abstract outlook suddenly becoming both confined and too literally defined, but here it also actively breaks up the ongoing climactic sequence in a way that just seems odd. It manages to survive the interruption, though, and while it could be read as somewhat superficial, this climax has real excitement.
The second movement, ‘Dhyana: meditation’ is a highly effective atmosphere of mystery, notes clustering around the (to an extent, implied) pitch centre, including the basset clarinet, which seems magnetically drawn to it. This is the only movement where the chanting sounds appropriate, due to the fact that the whole soundworld Henderickx creates here could almost be the product of an avant-garde ritual. Van Wauwe’s role veers between light touches where she’s inseparable from the orchestra and brief periods where she acts as a mouthpiece (or perhaps, to continue the analogy, priest), aligning with the pitch centre such that it takes on a sense of timelessness, tapping into a tone that’s endless and infinite. This is where SUTRA is at its best, far removed from orchestral tropes and clichés, exploring a more authentically individual and immersive music.
Released by Pentatone, Flow is available on CD and download.