Northern Sinfonia / Zehetmair, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

There are, in a sense, two Webers.

There are, in a sense, two Webers. The inspired musical dramatist is familiar - and the focus, in this first week of the Edinburgh Festival, of concert performances of all three of his big Romantic operas. But Weber was also a famous pianist and wrote some staggering virtuoso numbers, not only for piano but also, notably, for clarinet - and, in the case of the Grand Duo Concertant, for piano and clarinet together.

This performance was a shopwindow for the Belgian clarinettist Ronald Van Spaendonck. He is one of those artists whose technical capacities are limitless. His boundless confidence expresses itself in shimmying body movements, ironic smiles and dazzling cascades of notes in all registers, dodging into mezza voce when the mood takes him, always sunny and spontaneous. His playing is fluent and witty - but perhaps not profound.

Fortunately, it's quite convincing in this optimistic music. The composer, in his instrumental pieces, is like the final and supreme apotheosis of a whistling ploughboy. He breaks continually into coy lyricism, lilting and dancing with careless ease. Both artists - the pianist was Dejan Lazic - revelled in it and the work ended with a competition for who could play fastest.

Van Spaendonck also performed Weber's Clarinet Quintet with the Zehetmair Quartet. But this is not really a quintet: it's another clarinet romp, and the player enjoyed himself richly, with very quiet, very fast chromatic scales and passages of sly charm and almost unbelievable brilliance.

Earlier, Lazic played the F minor Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, partnered by the Northern Sinfonia. This was straightforward fluency rather than drama. Thomas Zehetmair, leader of the quartet, conducted, capturing the boyish, noisy exuberance of Weber's orchestration and making room for some memorable solos. Weber, himself an oboist, wrote oboe parts full of deft charm, superbly played by the orchestra's principal.

There was also a real rarity - the First Symphony. This, too, had some oboistic delights, especially a little rhythmic tag in the scherzo whose continual recurrence always brought a smile. The last two movements were unexpectedly fine, illustrating the fertile mind of the 20-year-old master.

But maybe the concert was a bit too long. There was also the Horn Concertino, delicately played by David Pyatt, and the Abu Hassan overture. All sunshine, of course, from this composer who somehow, even when portraying sinister magic bullets and wolf's glens, always warmed the heart.

Festival ends 5 September (0131-473 2000)

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