Clarinet Tone Talk 3, excerpts from Beethoven 6th symphony

clarinet tone talkThis is the third in the weekly Monday series, Tone Talk.

As I established in the first tone talk a few weeks ago, I would prefer to keep the performers anonymous, mostly to enable frank and unbiased discussion of the aesthetics of each tone sample.

Naturally, I do not treat this as a scientific discussion of tone, and nor should you. These samples are from recordings with completely different acoustics, microphones, positioning, and production technologies. My aim is simply to expand the language of the aesthetics of clarinet tone. I post my own appraisal of the tone sample, but all comments are welcome.

So in that spirit, here are the weekly samples for Clarinet Tone Talk 3. Since I just played Beethoven 6th Symphony, I thought that would be a good set of excerpts to discuss.

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This clarinetist has a large AND well centered tone. Usually a player has one or the other. A balance of size and core is the ideal to which I strive.

After those two qualities have been accomplished, the colors of the sound are merely a matter of preference. This sound has just enough brightness to "carry" but not so much as to annoy.

Obviously it's an old recording and the sound quality is not as clear as it could be. But you get the idea. This player has a sound which rings like a bell. A word which clarinetists like to use to describe the particular ring of the clarinet is "ping".

Occasionally, the pitch is a bit flat compared to the rest of the orchestra. This highlights one of the numerous difficulties of playing in orchestra. A clarinet tends to go flat during loud volumes and sharp during soft ones. Unfortunately, it's quite the opposite for most any other instrument.

To play a projecting solo in orchestra, a clarinetist must use a great deal of air pressure while at the same time "voicing" as high as possible, which may include some constructive pressure on the reed, to keep the pitch from sagging too much.

While playing softly the opposite is required; the same player with the same mouthpiece and reed must release most of the embouchure pressure while maintaining a "ping" in the voicing.

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6 comments for “Clarinet Tone Talk 3, excerpts from Beethoven 6th symphony

  1. John
    October 10, 2010 at

    As someone who studied these excerpts (and am about to play them) with the late Robert Marcellus, I'm partial to the old Cleveland recordings with Szell. That being said, I find most tempos on these excerpts to be too fast (something the individual clarinetst really has no control over). Marcellus used to say that there is a narrow range of tempi that a given piece can be played succesfully at. If not, you can't phrase it right no matter how hard you try. I totally agree with this. I think if the music were allowed to "breath" it could be far more musical and you could do more with the phrasing. As far as pitch and tone… I find nothing objectional. To be honest, most of these tonal arguments are a matter of personal preference and who you studied with; and clarinetists are far more concerned with things like tonal quality then most conductors are, let alone audiences. I went to Marcellus because I prefered his tone quality and musicianship above any other clarinetist, so I'm prejudiced. That is the sound I prefer and the one I strive for.

    • October 10, 2010 at

      Marcellus still defined my ideas of tone. But I feel like the concept has evolved since then.

  2. John Peacock
    October 5, 2010 at

    Hi David. I think what you're doing in this series is really interesting and worthwhile, but it would be better to focus on having a range of players doing the same excerpt. This is because comparative judgements can be made more finely than absolute ones. Sometimes you hear something and you know it could be better, but you can't put your finger on what you don't like until you hear it done right.

    Anyway, within these excerpts, I wouldn't describe the tone as "large". The best of them in this respect is no. 4, but the opening of no. 1 is the opposite: to me it has a constricted and buzzy quality that sounds like the reed is too soft, the mouthpiece is too closed, or both. The other clips are somewhere in between; particularly in the slow movement clip no. 2, I'd prefer to hear a smoother sound that sings out more, especially as it soars to the top C.

    • October 5, 2010 at

      Excellent suggestion John. I will use side by side samples when possible.

      The tone of this player sounded better through a large stereo, which is how I heard it to form my comments, rather than computer speakers.

  3. Michael
    October 4, 2010 at

    Hi David. While agree that the sound in the clarion register seems OK to me, I find the pitch problems are just too much to get around. The player continually pinches any high Ds in both the first and second movement excerpts. While it may be true that our instrument goes flat at louder dynamic levels, it's our responsibility to combat this and play in tune! From an artistic sense, I don't find this particularly interesting either. It's rather "run of the mill". Just my opinion!

    • October 4, 2010 at

      Hi Michael. The point of these discussions is honesty. Your take is quite valid. I think many clarinetists figure since everyone else plays a bit out of tune, then it's okay. Many recordings of famous orchestras have clarinet solos which are quite out of tune. As difficult as it may be, the fact remains that playing in tune should be a top priority, even over tone. But the usual discussions like these center only on tone to the exclusion of other musical qualities.

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