Originally published in The Clarinet 47/1 (December 2019). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Audio Notes: December 2019
by Kip Franklin
A Maryland native, Robert DiLutis is professor of clarinet at the University of Maryland and principal clarinetist of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. A new album from DiLutis and the Mellifera String Quartet titled Mozart at the Mansion features Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, which was a product of Mozart’s collaborations with clarinetist Anton Stadler. Recorded at Riversdale Mansion in DiLutis’s home state, the album is available as a vinyl LP and digital download.
Although the Quintet is the only work on the album, DiLutis’s technical and tonal precision and depth of interpretation provide a densely rich listening experience. The playing by the Mellifera String Quartet is equally powerful with perfect blend, precision and intonation. In the opening Allegro, Mellifera establishes a chorale-like texture from which DiLutis bubbles up with buoyant arpeggios in the tonic and dominant harmonies, showcasing his command across the full range of the instrument. Although the primary thematic material is mainly a back-and-forth between DiLutis and the quartet, the secondary theme is much more layered, as DiLutis takes up the violin melody with witty chromatic inflections that lead to a frenzy of thirds, arpeggios and full-range scales to round out the exposition. The development section showcases the ensemble talents of the Mellifera String Quartet through perfectly imitated fugal developments spun off DiLutis’s opening lick. The recapitulation contains all of the effervescent characteristics of the exposition, with elegant embellishments by DiLutis. In a welcome departure from modern convention, the ensemble performs the repeat of the development and recapitulation, adding a fun bonus for listeners!
In contrast to the carbonated first movement, the Larghetto is intimate and tender. DiLutis presents the simple, prayer-like melody with stunning smoothness and control of the soft dynamic, and later decorates the violin lines with grupetti and rising scales that melt into the texture of the full ensemble. His ability to homogenize his tone into the upper strings creates a bittersweet, almost angelic quality of sound. DiLutis is able to float effortlessly above the descending harmonic sequences in the strings. His eingang gives way to a return of the opening melody, made all the more serene through his ability to achieve a pianissimo dynamic that is full of quiet intensity yet maintains a powerful presence of sound. With perfect coordination between DiLutis and the quartet, the Larghetto concludes calmly and the boisterous Menuetto ensues.
Here, DiLutis and his colleagues are in their element and display their command of the most difficult aspect of performing Mozart: style. They keep the melody of the Menuetto constantly afloat, never allowing it to hit the ground, and always keep the phrase on a forward trajectory. The Trio I provides another opportunity for the members of the quartet to demonstrate their flexibility and facility. With the clarinet temporarily removed from the texture, the strings come to the fore and weave a tapestry in the parallel minor key. After a return to the main Menuetto in which DiLutis re-enters the texture, Trio II follows. DiLutis’s playing here is incredibly chic and conveys the utmost purity of melody and phrase execution. A return to the main Menuetto provides a balanced conclusion to the movement.
The final Allegro con variazioni is a perky, jaunty and rollicking movement that is expertly executed. The tempo in this movement is perhaps a notch or two faster than other recordings of the Quintet, but the ensemble throws caution to the wind and is clearly up to the task. DiLutis’s playing provides filigree for the thematic material played by the quartet. His line soars above the quartet, with occasional dips into the lower register handled with precise articulation and evenness of sound. Later, as the spotlight again shifts away from DiLutis and to the quartet, his ability to spin a single sustained note adds to the direction and progression of the phrase. DiLutis handles the notoriously difficult fourth variation with aplomb. His rapidly cascading arpeggios adorn the theme. It is often said that the best technique is that which is not noticeable at all, and that certainly applies here. DiLutis’s playing is effortless and unlabored. A tranquil and unruffled Adagio runs into a final exuberant statement of the primary thematic material and the work’s conclusion. Overall, the playing from DiLutis and Mellifera is graceful and refined, providing a refreshing and sophisticated interpretation of this well-loved work.
This recording is extraordinarily laudable and highly recommended. There are, of course, many fine recordings of this work in existence, but the clarity, precision and lightness of the playing in this album sets it apart from others. Also notable is DiLutis’s use of the standard A clarinet rather than the basset clarinet with an extended range, making the recording relevant to a broad spectrum of everyday players. Pedagogically, the album is an excellent resource that expertly exhibits the light, elegant style of Mozart. Musically, the playing is a rewarding experience at all levels. That the album is available on vinyl as well as digitally is also a nice touch for those with a preference for that format. Happy listening!