by James Leonard
When Karl Leister joined the Berlin Philharmonic as principal clarinetist in 1959, the orchestra had been under the autocratic directorship of Herbert von Karajan for five years. Leister served for more than thirty years, at the center of the wind section of the most beautiful musical instrument in the world. Under von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic achieved a seamless balance, a luminous tone, and a level of ensemble virtuosity that is still unsurpassed.
The son of a clarinetist, Leister was a musical phenomenon in Berlin, a soloist with the Komische Oper at nineteen and then with the Philharmonic at twenty-one. During his three decades under Karajan, Leister played in some of the finest orchestral performances ever recorded. Older listeners recall his fresh, rustic tone in the 1962 Beethoven Pastoral; his cool, hot tone in the 1965 Ravel Bolero; his softly yearning tone in the 1973 Mahler Fifth; and his sublime spiritual tone in the 1979 Bruckner Ninth.
During his years in the Philharmonic, Leister also had careers as a chamber musician and a teacher. After he retired from the Berlin in 1993, he continued the first and expanded the second. For two days in March, Leister will be at the U-M music school in both capacities, teaching a master class on Wednesday, March 16, and then performing a recital at Rackham Auditorium on Thursday, March 17.
For his recital Leister has chosen two of the ripest works of German Romanticism: Schumann's Drei Fantasiestcke, op. 73, and Brahms's Sonata, op. 120, no. 2. Schumann wrote the three "fantasy pieces" at the height of his powers, two years before his collapse into insanity. With their melancholy inward lyricism and edgy outward ebullience, these fantasy pieces are a portrait of the composer on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Brahms's Sonata is a late work late in the lives both of the composer and of German Romanticism. In 1894, three years after he announced that he was done
with composing, Brahms wrote the Sonata as the second of a pair dedicated to the sweet-toned virtuoso Richard Mhlfeld. He had already written a trio and a quintet of surpassing loveliness for Mhlfeld, but after this piece, only the Four Serious Songs and the eleven chorale preludes for organ followed before the composer's death three years later.
Brahms's Sonata is an autumnal work, a work of the fruitful season and the nostalgic frame of mind. It is in three movements, a softly singing Allegro amabile followed by a robustly dancing Allegro appassionato and a closing set of variations on a tender Andante con moto theme. As the final public work at the end of his career as a composer, the Sonata is a gracious last bow.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]