Katherine Lacy (clarinet)
Duncan Riddell (director)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Soloists of the RPO
This new recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, by Katherine Lacy, principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), demonstrates an exceptionally high level of artistry. Lacy is joined in the concerto by the RPO, and by soloists drawn from the orchestra for her performance of Mozart's quintet for clarinet and strings, the disc's other featured work.
I was inspired to review this record because of an article by Peter Eaton in this issue telling the story of the English tradition of large-bore clarinets and his own involvement in it. Lacy is a leading exponent of these instruments (made by Eaton) so one question on listening to the recording is: can you hear the difference? This debate is perhaps futile; after all, it's not what you play but how you play that matters. Nevertheless, to my ear there is the clear presence of an English sound in Lacy's playing: that characteristic bloom and breadth; a forthright, declamatory quality at louder dynamics; and a certain grainy woodiness.
But more than this, Lacy has managed to refashion this sound from an older era into something that meets modern expectations for intonation and smoothness, while also offering something refreshingly different from recent recordings of the concerto that tend more towards a globally homogenised clarinet sound. Of course, non-nerds may simply hear a lovely, warm tone and wonder what on earth I'm talking about.
For the concerto Lacy uses a basset clarinet made by Eaton (although not in the quintet for some reason, where she plays the normal A clarinet). This means that we get the extra four semitones at the bottom of the range, with the whole compass of the instrument coming across smoothly and resonantly. This isn't always so: basset clarinets can sometimes sound a bit uneven, which seems not to be the case with Eaton's model, at least in Lacy's hands. (In the last issue of Clarinet & Saxophone we heard from Roeland Hendrikx, who decided to record the concerto on the normal A clarinet due to what he feels is the compromised tone of the basset, sacrificing the 'authenticity' of the extra notes for the more urgent need just to sound good.)
Lacy is clearly a highly accomplished musician and approaches both works with a sunny, relaxed charm. Her dynamic range is wide, with some real whispers at the pianissimo end, and the mix is just right in terms of balance. The orchestra is polished and supportive, as are the chamber soloists in the quintet. Lacy conforms to the modern trend of adding improvised ornaments on repeated phrases, but does so relatively unobtrusively, never exhibiting virtuosic ego. Is the soulful depth of the concerto's slow movement completely present? That will be for each listener to decide, but the sweetly floating sonority conjured here is certainly exquisite. Perhaps the quintet was a missed opportunity as a partner work. Why not something more unexpected to help the record stand out? Still, this release will more than earn its place alongside the other 900 recordings of the Mozart concerto you probably already own. And if your CD shelf or download tray won't take the strain, fear not, you can listen on Spotify and I recommend that you do.
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