Monday, February 23, 2009

Knizia vs. K.622

I'm not usually a fan of cross-genre comparisons. I remember a few years back there was a GeekList aiming to associate boardgame designers with their classical composer analogues. I'm willing to play the game, if somewhat half-heartedly, when we're talking Teuber or Knizia (I remember arguing without particular conviction for Knizia being kind of like Mozart), but when people start putting Martin Wallace and Franz Schubert into the same sentence, I rapidly lose interest.

Anyway, as some of you may be aware, I was at one point in my life - rather longer ago now than I like to admit - a clarinet player. In the last year or so, I've been practicing again, trying to get back in shape. I started out with the Concertino, by Carl Maria von Weber, primarily for nostalgic purposes; that was the piece with which I transitioned from being an average high school wind musician to being pretty good. Then the whole start-up thing kicked in, and I lost momentum. But I've recently been re-energized by Jasper Rees' wonderful book A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument (or "I Found my Horn: One Man's Struggle With The Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument" for our UK friends; I always find these sorts of subtle title changes between the US and UK fascinating). The book helped me realize that if you're really going to do this sort of thing when you're 40, you don't want to screw around with second-tier pieces. You want to go with the best. And for the clarinet, that would be Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K.622 (Meyer) (Stoltzman) (Neidich) (Marcellus), one of the greatest concertos ever written, for clarinet or any other instrument for that matter. After all, unlike Rees, I was able to competently perform the Adagio of that concerto 20 years ago, so surely the whole thing would be a worthy, and doable, goal.

So I picked up a CD with an orchestral accompaniment of the piece. I was reading the included two-page notes when I ran across this passage that I could swear that if I haven't written, I should have:

"Here Mozart displays that most deceptive and difficult artistic feat, one that most lesser artists endlessly fail to achieve: that "less is more". A lasting work of art does not entail showing off one's talents, but rather capturing a subject's psychological essence - it's honesty - in as clear and simple a statement as possible. Mozart provides this again and again in so many of his compositions, and we are eternally surprised at his straightforwardness and lack of embellishment. And it is in this, his last concerto [the Clarinet Concerto, K.622], that Mozart's "art of simplicity" possibly finds its finest expression."

- Douglas Scharmann, notes on the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV622, for Music Minus One

You swap out Mozart and replace it with Knizia, and replace Clarinet Concerto with Beowulf or Modern Art or Lost Cities, and this could almost be re-used word for word. I make no claim that Knizia's genius is in the same league as Mozart's - I'd give up my entire game collection before I gave up Mozart's Clarinet Concerto alone - but still, that one could use almost identical language to describe their particular talents when compared to the artists that surround(ed) them, well, it's rather striking.

My amazement can perhaps be understood a little better with some context. Although the notes never mention anything specific, when Scharmann says the Clarinet Concerto "lack[s] embellishment" this was probably written with later pieces, perhaps von Weber's two very challenging clarinet concerti (Meyer), in mind. Later composers would latch on to the clarinet's agility as its most distinguishing feature, and write extremely technical pieces for it. Also, many concerti - including all of Mozart's magnificent clarinet and horn concerti - are written with a specific performer in mind, and performers like to show off their technique, and for the clarinet, that often seems to mean the ability to play the notes fast. Performances of even the very musical Weber Concertino evolved such that performers competed to play it faster and faster, past all reasonable bounds. Fortunately this is far less true today, but even so Charles Neidich, one of today's finest clarinet players, plays it at a tempo fast enough to needlessly cut into the pieces' musical virtue (in my opinion) in his recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Mozart, on the other hand, understands all the things that make the clarinet such a wonderful and versatile instrument: not only its agility, but its range, its purity of sound, its expressiveness, and its incredible dynamic range that allow it to play comfortably with any other instrument in the orchestra and has made it a staple soloist and member in virtually any musical group, including orchestras, symphonic winds, chamber music, band, jazz, folk, klezmer, film soundtracks, and even popular music until everything had to be amped ... once you start listening, you can start hearing the clarinet almost everywhere.

The topic of Mozart and his famous Clarinet Concerto is too vast to tackle in a blog. But for me, once considered, the parallels are so remarkable I feel little need to elaborate any further, and leave it up to you to explore.


  1. Good luck on getting back to speed with the clarinet playing! I totally agree about the virtues of Mozart's concerto.

  2. You had me at Mozart. No, at Knizia. No, Mozart. Actually...

    GREAT article!

  3. Thank you for this post Chris. I bought the Mozart Concertos for Clarinet, Flute & Bassoon CD this weekend and truly enjoyed it.

    It's always nice to discover something beautiful outside the gaming realm by reading something game related.

  4. The Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Mozart Woodwind Concertos I think was the second recording I bought; my first was the one I learned from, the Robert Marcellus/Cleveland Orchestra recording, which is still amongst my favorites, along with the more recent Franklin Cohen/Cleveland Orchestra version.

    I now own almost 20 different recordings of it, accumulated over 20+ years. To me, it's amazing how different two performers on the clarinet can sound, although perhaps it's just my ear is more subtly attuned to the clarinet.

    Anyway, there are so many great clarinetists and great performances of the concerto out there now. Two women broke into the boy's club of classical music, Thea King and later Sabine Meyer (see Meyer's entry on Wikipedia to see how bad things were for women), to make two of my favorite recordings. But the best, to my mind, is Sharon Kam's. Nobody makes the clarinet sing the way she does. Even after all these years, after listening to so many different versions and knowing the piece like the back of my hand, her performance is still heart-stopping. The sad thing is that it's been essentially unavailable in the US ... in the past, you've had to get it via

    Just in the last few months, iTunes has allowed you to switch your country (click on your flag in the lower right) and access the iTunes Store for different regions. All Sharon Kam's older recordings are available in the German store. Not sure if you can buy them - I already own them - but it's a good sign.

  5. For those who may be interested, the concerto has proven daunting. Unlike Mozart's horn concertos, the clarinet concerto is *long* - an entire horn concerto would almost fit inside just the clarinet concerto's Allegro. And the Rondo is very challenging; Mozart wrote four horn concertos, of which the third is considered the "easy one"; we clarinetists have just the one not-so-easy one. I can play the Adagio, and I can almost manage the Allegro at a minimally acceptable performance tempo, but the Rondo is still a bridge too far. So I set it aside for a bit and I'm working up Stamitz' 3rd Concerto as well, not in the same league obviously, but very nice and, crucially, not nearly as long. Sabine Meyer has a very good recording of it.