Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reginald Kell's Mozart Clarinet Concerto, K622 * Zimbler Sinfonietta * 1950

Like most clarinetists who have been subjected to redundantly similar version of the same piece, I've almost given up on Mozart Concerto recordings. When  I saw this set from DG leading off with K622, I was tempted to skip to the second or third disc. Feeling I should eat my vegetables before cake, though, I put on K622.

This particular recording was made in New York, in May of 1950. The accompanying ensemble is known as the "Zimbler Sinfonietta"--a group formed by Josef Zimbler, cellist of the Boston Symphony, and seemingly drawn from the BSO's ranks. I was intrigued to learn there was no conductor for the session. Despite its cold, chiseled beauty, I've always been frustrated, for example, with the Marcellus/Szell version of the Concerto--the straight-jacketed feeling of a soloist following the baton, waiting for permission to phrase, and being dictated the emotion seems antithetical to the point of a solo concerto, in my opinion, however pristine the results. Mercifully, there is none of that sensation here.

Kell, even for the uninitiated, comes with a reputation. I've heard teachers refer to him as a "jackass" and a "clown" during lessons. Even without those assessments, two words are generally mentioned: vibrato and rubato. With these in mind, my only expectation was something on the 'outrageous' side (if there is anything outrageous left to expect these days). Wild shifts in tempi, syrupy bleating, honking...whatever might be there, I was ready for it. Because of this predisposition, I was even more shocked by what I actually heard.

While vibrato certainly plays a part in this recording, to anyone who has listened to soloists over the past four decades, Kell's usage in this Mozart recording is hardly shocking: it would be considered mainstream among soloists these days.

Technically speaking it's certainly one of the finer and more polished renditions I've heard. Kell's control is superior to many other recordings. His Hawkes & Son Excelsior Sonorous clarinet (if that was what he used for this session) handled tricky spots like Measure 83 in the First Movement with considerably more grace than later players of polycylindrical bores (most players of polycylindrical bores experience a type of "flubbed" sound over the break in measure 83--it seems to expose a problem of design).

Now the challenge of measure 83 isn't worth mentioning unless it is a symptom--and when it can't be played convincingly it is indeed a symptom of a bigger problem with flexibility and control. That Kell handles this moment relatively better than most (save the German bore players), perked my ears up, and they were not disappointed on a technical level for the rest of the piece. His handling of the arpeggios traditionally reaching to the low altissimo [Mvt I mm.145-147] was superior to most recordings from mid-century--he neither backs off, nor squeezes the sound, but simply reaches up and plays them. Perhaps most gratifying of all were measures 172-192, which were executed as well as I have ever heard them. Kell is in complete control, the high D played apparantly on the side, but fully, beautifully, evenly in the context of the passage, with no jarring change of color or need to balance a problem of stuffiness. His echo technique in the same passage is beautifully executed; naturally, as though spontaneous, and without the pedantic quality that is always a danger.

The rest of the concerto follows suit. The third movement in particular deserves some mention, for here we are treated to Kell's spring-like, confident bounce to the articulation, so perfectly suited to the music and so often ruined by either self-conscious "lightness" (resulting in effete timidity) or a tendency to hammer staccato, presumably to prove one has cunningly spotted dots above the notes. Not only does Kell surpass such poor execution--his playing is so natural it seems as though such bad readings never occurred to him (perhaps they never did).

Leaving the focus on technique for the moment, much has been made about Kell's use of rubato. There are certain recordings where this is justified. I'll dedicate a future post to the Stravinsky Pieces, where a charge of excessive rubato might be legitimately leveled, but in his Mozart the accusation would be false. A great deal might be mistaken for rubato, but there is a difference.

One of Kell's most identifiable traits is a type of "breath accenting" under slurs. He does this with more subtlety than many critics might acknowledge, changing a phrase by slightly emphasizing a note here, clipping another (without tonguing) there; very subtle timbral and dynamic changes throughout passages that can give the overall impression of rubato, though Kell's use of true rhythmic rubato is no more pronounced in this recording than in most standard interpretations of the piece--perhaps even less.  The end result of Kell's approach is a more declamatory quality, and because of his individual attention to so many notes, there is a firmness to the metric structure absent from most readings. Thus, even at soft dynamic level, he can project a type of strength of conviction. This happens in the slow movement rather remarkably, where this tender, prayer-like melody is deepened with a full grown, masculine depth. As a full grown man myself, I find this refreshing!

Kell's remarkable sense of ensemble is on display here as well, and he integrates certain passages into the orchestra better than any recorded version I've heard.

All things considered, this is simply one of the finest, most musically satisfying recording of K622 I have ever heard.

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