Some composers are loved in their lifetime and revered for evermore.
Others are misjudged by their peers and only appreciated after they're gone. And others – groundbreakers and mavericks, superstars of their day – seem to fall out of fashion as the decades and centuries wear on. Such is the case with Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). Perhaps his biggest mistake was to be a direct contemporary of both Beethoven (1870-1827) and Schubert (1797-1828), whose legacies have (rightfully) eclipsed his.
However, Der Freischütz made Weber one of the leading lights of the Germanic school: a true visionary who showed that opera could work in a German idiom, not just an Italian one, with arch-Romantic, proto-nationalist overtones that pointed all the way to Wagner. His orchestration is vibrant and colourful – praised by Debussy, no less, as "scrutinising the soul of each instrument".
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At heart Weber's music is all about melody, something he promoted above every other musical ingredient whether he was writing for voices or not. But these days it's his instrumental music that we hear most, and not always for the right reasons. His scale-heavy, finger-working wind concertos have become technical testing grounds for students across the country -- take a walk past any set of music college practice rooms and you're guaranteed to hear clarinettists schlepping their way through the Concerto in F Minor or the Grand Duo Concertante. The trick is to get the runs to sound bright and fun, to make them ride the melody like froth on a wave. For most of us, that's easier said than executed.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's recent recording of Weber wind concertos on Linn Records shows how it should be done. The three soloists – clarinettist Maximiliano Martín, bassoonist Peter Whelan and horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill, all SCO principals – make Weber's lines sound muscular, flamboyant and daring.
SAYS Martín: "These pieces have been with us all of our lives, but for me they are masterpieces. They are so well-written, so fluid. Each concerto is like an mini opera and the soloist is like a voice, singing all the way."
Whelan explains why he considers Weber such an important composer – "and not just for the practice room. He found a new voice, a way of making melody more important than anything else. Of course you have to get the notes right, but all of these melismas should just sit on top of the vocal line. And he's a master at different colours; he'll write introductions in the classical idiom then switch to very evocative, primary colours. It's very appealing – he was writing for the masses."
Still, Whelan acknowledges that something extra is needed for these pieces to work on the concert platform. "You can play Bach however you want and it'll always sound good. Weber is more like Vivaldi: the music looks dry on the page so you need to give it attitude and pizzazz to bring it to life."
This weekend the SCO's concerts feature two of the four concertos from the Weber disc: the Bassoon Concerto in F Major and the Clarinet Concerto in F Minor. I asked Martín, the orchestra's principal clarinet for10 years, and Whelan, principal bassoon for four, what it's like to stand up as soloists in front of colleagues.
"It's not so different," Martín shrugs. "We're working with musicians who know our playing inside out and really respond to what we do. If I go elsewhere to play a concerto the atmosphere is less like a little family. I've never been as comfortable playing concertos with an orchestra as I am here."
Whelan is something of a specialist when it comes to historical performance, and his preparation of the bassoon concerto delved far beyond standard note-drilling. "There are lots of different versions of these pieces," he explains. "The one that most people use for the bassoon concerto is an edition published 35 years after Weber died. It's full of editorial markings that aren't in earlier versions. So we wrote to the Berlin Staatsbibliothek where the manuscripts are kept, and two weeks later photocopies of Weber's original manuscripts arrived in the post-"
There are a few telling differences. Listen out, for example, to an inflection in the opening of the bassoon concerto that shifts suddenly to a minor key -- it's there in an 1811 version, scrubbed out by the 1820s revisions. This kind of small detail creates an unusual colour; a shadow of doubt in the context of jolly, military F Major.
"Then there are the matters of articulation," Whelan continues, "and stop me if this gets too horribly geeky-"
What follows is a 20-minute discussion of the nitty-gritty of baroque and classical articulation patterns; suffice it to say there were "some pretty revolutionary changes," going on around Weber's time. "Basically anything goes," Martín sums up with a cheeky glance at his colleague. "I try not to decide what I'm going to do until the night. It's part of the spontaneity of performance."
Whelan concedes the point. "It's easy to go too far down the specialism route. You should doff your cap to period conventions, but at the end of the day you need the freedom to express yourself, to be a genuine, heart-felt musician. In the past people have risked becoming too dry in favour of being academically correct, but better orchestras have moved on from that and can bring freshness and vitality to these scores." Hearing two minutes of the Weber disc should be enough to reassure you which side of that divide the SCO falls on.
The SCO is at Glasgow's City Halls on Friday and Edinburgh's Queen's Hall on Saturday.