While the wail of the clarinet might invoke the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue”, its plaintive sound was used long before Gershwin to support the human voice in many a German lieder. To prove the effectiveness of this woodwind, you need go no further than the Divine Art release of “The Obbligato Clarinet” (25025), which is one of the more beautiful CDs I have heard recently.
First of all, the Italian “obbligato” means “necessary”, and the term is the exact opposite of “ad libitum” freely). Many a Baroque piece has a single instrument playing a role second in importance only to the vocal part. In opera, we have the solo violin that accompanies Faust’s salute to Marguerite’s home and the even more familiar flute that helps Lucia di Lammermoor in her mad flights of fancy. When it comes to Lieder, it was Schubert who was among the first or was actually the first to use the clarinet in his lovely “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (The Shepherd on the Rock).
This Divine Art CD gives us 15 examples, including the Schubert piece, of the clarinet obbligato in Lieder. The other composers represented here are Franz Lachner, Mariano Obiols, Louis Spohr, Giacomo Meyebeer, Fredrich Kucken, J W Kalliwoda, Richard Henry Walthew, and Andreas Sparth (sic). Yes, most of the names are new to me also, but that is what makes this CD all the more valuable. One does get weary of the same pieces all the time, and one does crave new musical experiences even when they are lesser works.
The soloist, tenor Robert Murray and mezzo Eirian James are quite personable and give the requisite dramatic approach to the texts. Accompanying them are clarinettist Colin Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies. The booklet is packed with information about each composer and the chosen selection. If there ever was a gift for the collector who “has everything” , this is it.