Weber Grand Duo Concertante

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From liner notes on Jonathan Cohler's "Cohler on Clarinet" CD (Ongaku Records).

Reprinted by kind permission of Ongaku records.


Although primarily known as the first of the great Romantic composers and the founder of German Romantic opera with Der Freischütz, Weber was a multi-faceted, multi-talented man. One of the great pianists of the day, Weber is also credited with being the most important conductor of his period. He transformed the conductor from a rather passive time beater into the real leader of the orchestra. He was one of the first to institute sectional rehearsals and to demand and exert detailed control over his entire operatic productions. Weber's long-time friendship with Heinrich Joseph Bærmann, one of the great clarinetists of that time, no doubt spurred him to also become one of the most prolific composers for the clarinet. His solo works for the clarinet include two concertos, a concertino, a quintet with strings, an introduction, theme & variations and the Grand Duo Concertant with piano, which was his last piece for the instrument.

The Grand Duo is unique among all his clarinet pieces for a couple of reasons. Unlike his other works in which the accompaniments are subservient background to a virtuoso solo part, the Grand Duo presents an equal juxtaposition of two virtuoso solo parts, one on the clarinet, the other on the piano. There is never any question in the listener's mind that this piece is a Duo in the true sense of the word. Flowing scales in thirds and sixths and a back-and-forth sharing of the melody and accompaniment lines characterize this piece throughout and many of his operas that followed. Hearing the operatic interlude in the third movement one can't help but feel the musical connections with Oberon and Der Freischütz, both of which would follow later.

The second reason this work stands out is that it was the only of Weber's works not written for Bærmann. Instead it was written for Johann Hermstedt who is more often associated with another romantic composer for the clarinet, Ludwig Spohr. It is no surprise that Weber performed the premiere of this work himself with Hermstedt, because there are several passages in this piece that can be played only by a pianist with enormous hands and phenomenal technique, both of which Weber possessed. As Harold Schonberg puts it, "some of the stretches that he wrote cannot be played by normal human beings."

The first movement, Allegro con fuoco, is in standard sonata-allegro form and revolves around the scalar passages that erupt in the very beginning. In the middle, the scales give way to an operatic give-and-take of lilting music and an occasional measure or two of rhythmic and melodic repose, but the undercurrent of constant eighth notes is never gone for long. Deftly transforming the lilting undercurrent back into driving con fuoco scales, Weber brings the movement to a brilliant close. A subtle and expressive opening to the C minor Andante con moto second movement later turns into an expansive exploration of the clarinet's sounds, colors, dynamics and range. The Rondo: Allegro third movement returns to the scalar ideas of the first movement, but now presents them in a lilting six-eight meter. After the recitativo middle section, the piece closes with what could best be described as a virtuosic orgy of scales and arpeggios for two.

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