Because there are a wealth of recordings featuring the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, choice often comes down to the pieces that fill out a disc, and here we get one of the most imaginative programs I’ve encountered. The outstanding German clarinetist Nicolai Pfeffer offers two unusual arrangements from originals for violin and orchestra, the Rondo in C, K 373, and a concert aria for soprano. It is also welcome that we get Symphony No. 29, given that the conductor, Markus Stenz, has an international reputation. The expectation of high-caliber performances is nicely fulfilled. Pfeffer, who was born in Fulda, Germany in 1985, has a particularly elegant tone and playing style. His phrasing is more liquid and legato than, say, Gervase de Peyer on one of his classic Decca account, but Pfeffer has a firm rhythmic sense, so nothing gets blurred. He takes advantage of the pause in the first movement where the soloist was expected to improvise an Eingang (brief cadenza). His improvisation is modest and appropriately tasteful, as are the embellishments added here and there. The accompaniment is rich-sounding enough that you cannot tell if the Orchestra della Toscana plays with reduced forces. Stenz’s conducting is as stylish and satisfying as the soloist’s. (Pfeffer teaches clarinet at his alma mater, the Cologne University of Music and Dance, which gives him a connection with Stenz, who led the venerable Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne from 2003 to 2014.) The ebullient Rondo in C, K 373, was composed in 1781, the year Mozart moved to Vienna, and some years after the five violin concertos. At six minutes it is almost a miniature; Pfeffer’s arrangement retains the original chamber orchestra of strings plus two oboes and horns. Conveniently this is the typical instrumentation for early Mozart symphonies, including No. 29. The music is as genial and sunny as C Major implies, and Pfeffer plays it so beautifully that the score seems to fit completely naturally on the clarinet. There are few technical demands, although the music’s range lies somewhat higher than the concerto and doesn’t reach down into the mellow basset clarinet range. The concert aria for soprano, “Sperai vicino il lido” (shorn of its recitative) is derived from an opera libretto by Metastasio titled Demofonte, which was set by 73 different composers, including Gluck, Vivaldi, and Paisiello. The central character, Demophon, was the son of Theseus and Phaedra in Greek mythology. He fought in the Trojan War and was one of the soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse. The aria belongs to a male character, Timante, but Mozart turned it into a demanding aria with coloratura passages for soprano. The melody and decoration are in opera seria mode at its loveliest and most serene. Since the clarinet has the greatest ability among woodwinds to mimic the human voice, Pfeffer gracefully sings the aria with subtle inflections—I’d even call this selection the highlight of the disc, all the more because as the ornamentation becomes more florid, the soloist gets to show off more acrobatics than anywhere else. Symphony No. 29 gets a lively reading under Stenz, with more speed and dynamic gestures than used to be traditional, and vibrato is mostly absent as far as I can hear. The mellow orchestral sound falls pleasingly on the ear, without any period zing or shrillness. Ideally I’d like the Allegros to be less abruptly accented, but this is a vivacious reading and a commendable addition to the clarinet pieces. The recorded sound from Teatro Verdi in Florence is exemplary in every work. Besides his elegance as a clarinetist, Pfeffer has spread his interests to musical scholarship (his editions, mostly of clarinet music, are published by Breitkopf & Härtel). He has also joined pianist Lars Vogt in a project to expose German school children to professional classical performers in the classroom. Pfeffer’s website outlines a prolific musical life, and this latest CD from him is a lovely example of the joy of music-making. Huntley Dent
This article originally appeared in Issue 45:1 (Sept/Oct 2021) of Fanfare Magazine.