Few clarinettists show such technical perfection as Sabine Meyer. She was born into a true clarinet family. Her grandfather, father and older brother were already playing the clarinet and, for her, it was without doubt the right choice as well. “I started to play the piano early on, after a while the violin too, I only took up the clarinet later and the organ as well. For years I practised all four instruments and enjoyed it. However, I soon realised that the clarinet suited me best. The modulation of the sound, playing with your breath – right from the start I had the feeling: that’s my instrument!”

Sabine Meyer © Steven Haberland
Sabine Meyer
© Steven Haberland

Initially, she started her career with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and later on with the Berlin Philharmonic, before making the brave decision in 1983 to leave orchestral life and perform as a soloist. “As a member of the BRSO or the Berlin Philharmonic you are lucky to meet many important music personalities; this can be international soloists, but also famous conductors. It fundamentally shapes your own musical development. Besides Karajan, these were, for me, Rafael Kubelík, Leonard Bernstein and Carlo Maria Giulini, to name a few. From an artistic point of view, there’s no better job for a clarinettist than to play with such an orchestra. My decision to leave was therefore not easy, and due to unfortunate circumstances.” Disagreements and differences within the orchestra had led to Meyer resigning from the Berlin Philharmonic before the conclusion of her probation period.

A solo career can be a bumpy road, which is why Meyer finds it important to find the right balance between solo, chamber or even, in her case, teaching. “As a wind player, a solo career is neither desirable nor practically possible, because the wind repertoire is not big enough to sustain one successfully for a number of years. It’s ‘normal’ and fulfilling to have a position with a good orchestra or a teaching appointment and solo or chamber music performances on the side, which is the case for me. Half of my time I spend as a professor at the Lübeck Conservatoire. In addition, half of my performances are as a soloist and half as a chamber musician.”

Meyer herself studied in Hanover with Hans Deinzer, whose students also include Martin Fröst, Meyer’s brother, Wolfgang, and her husband, Reiner Wehle, and she’s trying to pass much of what she’s learned from him on to her own students. “I learned from him that you don’t play the clarinet mechanically with your fingers. The singing qualities of the instrument are important, the control over the sound, the colours, articulation and phrasing. I want to pass this philosophy on to my students. There are too many ‘mechanics’ on the platform.”

Another significant interest of the German clarinettist is chamber music. Together with her husband and brother, she founded the Trio di Clarone whose repertoire ranges from Mozart to Jazz. “We performed with this trio for a surprising number of years. It was only possible because we developed a variety of projects. First there was the combination of original works by Mozart with contemporary music. Then there were programmes with singers and a lot of interesting, but forgotten original repertoire by, for example, Mozart or Stravinsky, but of course there were many programmes with three clarinets and piano or the collaboration with Eddie Daniels and Michael Riessler.” Together with the jazz clarinettist and composer Michael Riessler und Pierre Charial playing the hurdy-gurdy, they realised the project “Paris Mécanique” which tells a story of Paris in the twenties, the advent of film music and automated music.

As a concert soloist, Meyer is also constantly broadening the repertoire, but she would call herself ‘critical’ towards contemporary music. “On the one hand, there’s a lot of ‘ballyhoo’ or ingratiation toward the audience, on the other hand there are many compositions that a normal musician can no longer play. Regardless, there are valuable and distinguished composers and many works, which were written for me, that will last. For example works by Hosokawa, Eötvös, Denisov, Françaix, Trojahn, Reimann, Illés and many more.” However, she doesn’t have a specific approach to learning new works. “First you always have to analyse the text. Furthermore, you have to understand the composer’s intentions, that’s what it’s all about. As instrumentalists, we are only the intermediary between the composer and the audience.”

Besides Weber, Hindemith, Nielsen, Stamitz or Stamitz, Sabine Meyer names Mozart’s “Basset Clarinet Concerto” as the core of the clarinet repertoire. “It is the best composition ever written for a wind instrument. Everything else pales into insignificance beside it. The concerto lives alongside me. It is incredibly deep and rich of expression, colour and compositorial ideas. You discover something new every time. But it’s different with every orchestra, every conductor, hall and audience too. It’s especially nice if you work with a conductor who has a background in historically informed practices, like Giovanni Antonini.” Naturally, Meyer plays the concerto on a basset clarinet. “To be honest, it’s sad that you even have to ask this question today.”

“The work was composed for a basset clarinet and today we know much more about its history and original version than 40 years ago. Of course, you can play it on the flute or viola or even on a normal A clarinet. But those are adaptations and these instruments don’t have the astounding range of the basset clarinet which Mozart explicitly used in his concerto. Most parts of it, like the middle section of the Adagio or the entire third movement, live on this constant change of colours and pitch. You can’t do this on a normal clarinet, even for such an instrument, more than 100 bars of the solo part are different, one octave higher. It’s no question that an instrumentalist who calls themselves a ‘soloist’ has to play it on the original instrument.

As a student, Meyer played on period instruments a few times, yet there’s not enough time these days. “You’d have to specialize in this area. Especially period clarinets – there are also instruments with various tunings, additionally to the basset horn and basset clarinet – with their wooden mouthpieces, specially handmade reeds, you have to play them all the time. You can’t do this on the side and only every now and then.” Her everyday instrument is a Wurlitzer clarinet. “My instruments are pretty old, they were built by Herbert Wurlitzer in the seventies. They are high-class, handmade instruments, made out of specially selected wood. I also have pair made out of boxwood by Schwenk & Seggelke.” Like many other clarinettists, she worked together with the makers to initiate developments or improvements, “for example the intonation of the low E and F for the basset horn and basset clarinet.”

Sabine Meyer © Christian Ruvolo
Sabine Meyer
© Christian Ruvolo

Instead of today’s commonly used mouthpieces, Meyer plays a piece with an opening of approximately 0.91mm at the top, for which she developed the reed S800 with Steuer Reeds. “But of course you always have to adjust clarinet reeds, you have to carefully break them in, make them lighter or stronger. You choose the reed depending on the repertoire you’re playing: a light one for Debussy, a strong one for Brahms. It’s always difficult to find a good one for the basset clarinet.”

There’s one special instrument in her possession, a clarinet from the first half of the 19th century which formerly belonged to Johann Simon Hermstedt, the clarinettist for whom Louis Spohr wrote his clarinet concertos. “I played Spohr’s Fourth Clarinet Concerto at a concert near Braunschweig and I got a letter from one of Hermstedt’s ancestors afterwards. It turned out that this lady, in fact, had the original A clarinet for which this concerto was composed. She entrusted me with this instrument and I hope I can exhibit in a suitable museum to show it to the public one day.” Not only friends of the clarinet would wish for that.