CD review: Anthony McGill and Pacifica Quartet

Cover design: Luis Ibarra

Cover design: Luis Ibarra

CD review: ‘Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets’ with Anthony McGill, Pacifica Quartet

An impressive collaboration that includes the most compelling recording of the Brahms ‘Clarinet Quintet’ I’ve yet to hear — past or present

By David Abrams

Experience has taught me that orchestral musicians, even the very best of them, have difficulties making a convincing transition from the grandeur of symphonic music to the more intimate confines of chamber music.  I was pleasantly surprised, then, at the apparent absence of a learning curve on the part of Anthony McGill.

McGill, who for the past 10 years has held the position of co-principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, possesses the skills expected of a first-chair orchestral player — including meticulous command of technique, impeccable intonation and a remarkable level of consistency from performance to performance.  But his collaboration with the Pacifica Quartet in the two greatest warhorses of the clarinet chamber music repertoire reveals a level of warmth, intimacy and charm we don’t often get to hear from him in the orchestra pit.

Mozart & Brahms Clarinet Quintets, released May 27, is a product of Chicago-based Cedille (pronounced say-DEE) Records — an independent non-profit venture that caters to artists and ensembles in or from Chicago. The Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet, formerly on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and now in residency at the University of Chicago, has already recorded nine CDs under the Cedille label — including its acclaimed four-volume cycle of Shostakovich Quartets. The quartet continues to serve as quartet-in-residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

McGill, a former Chicago resident who grew up on the city’s south side, is a rising star who first captured the attention of the general public playing alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Gabriella Montero at the 2009 Obama Inauguration.  This fall McGill will be taking a leave of absence from the Met to join the New York Philharmonic as its principal clarinet — the first African-American to have held a principal chair position in that orchestra’s history.

The present recording collaboration is impressive on several counts, but none so revealing as the level of comfort and precision achieved by a mixed ensemble unaccustomed to playing together on a regular basis.  Of course, this is no “pick up” ensemble hastily assembled for the purpose of cutting a CD.  Prior to the recording, McGill and Pacifica took these works on a lengthy (and well received) tour, exploring varying interpretations and experimenting with different timbral balances until the musical experience seemed just right.

That pretty much sums up the level of playing and quality of performance on this recording: It’s just right.  And while I’ve heard several other recordings of the Mozart Quintet that may equal or exceed the quality of performance here, I can honestly say that I know of no other recording of the Brahms Quintet that can compare.  In terms of dramatic scope, power and intensity, the McGill-Pacifica collaboration has set a new standard upon which all other recordings of this work, past and present, may be measured.

Brahms wrote his mammoth Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op.115 in 1891, after announcing his intention to retire from composing.  We can credit Richard Mühlfeld, brilliant clarinetist of Hans von Bülow’s Meiningen Orchestra, with luring the composer out of retirement.  Fräulein klarinette, as Brahms affectionately called Mühlfeld, also inspired Brahms to write his Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano Op. 114 and the Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (the first-ever sonatas for that instrument).

Among the performance challenges for the clarinetist in this substantive work is crafting a tone sufficiently malleable to transition from a state of quiet, understated introspection to a storm of intensity powerful enough to unleash (and ultimately resolve) a mighty catharsis of emotions.  And nowhere is this challenge greater than in the heart and soul of this work — the lengthy second movement Adagio.

McGill’s sinuous tone at the ethereal opening phrases, hovering ever so gently above a delicate cloud of muted strings, captures the colors and understated beauty of a lyric soprano.  When the music descends to the parallel minor for the languished strains of the Più lento, McGill parlays this sweetness of tone into an outcry of anguish and pain.  At the movement’s climax, as all four strings dig in their heels with angstful double-stop tremolos, McGill then unleashes the full fury of his instrument in a series of explosive arpeggiated runs.

The five players capture a convincing sense of drama and longing in the wistful opening Allegro movement, which vacillates between B Minor and D Major as if in constant battle between two very different yet equally fragile states of emotion.  McGill complements the warm blend of the strings here with an effortless sound whose warmth captures the composer’s melancholic yearning.

The homogeneous blend of timbre between clarinet and strings, consistently good throughout the performance, is especially compelling in the soothing melodic phrases of the third movement Andantino.  Here, the colors of McGill’s tone connect with Pacifica as if the two are standing at opposite ends of a rainbow.  This mellifluous blend of sound continues into the concluding Con moto movement — an intoxicating set of variations that recalls the passacaglia/chaconne movement of the composer’s Fourth Symphony.

The challenges presented by the Mozart Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581, while different, are no less formidable.

As is the case with the Brahms, Mozart’s work calls for a clarinet pitched in A, which at some two-inches longer than its B-flat sibling yields a darker tone much the same way a viola produces a richer timbre than the violin. (For some reason I feel strangely obligated to add a viola joke here.) Unlike the Brahms, however, Mozart’s Quintet is set in the key of A Major — a key that held special meaning for the composer, who associated this key, and the clarinet, with love and sensuality. 

Mozart achieves this sensuality by lacing the music with an abundance of non-harmonic tones (especially appoggiaturas) designed to soften and polish the melodic lines.  No rough edges here — just satin-like phrases that reveal the composer at his warmest and most tender state of mind.  Performing Mozart well generally requires understatement, subtlety of phrasing, and the crafting of a “beautiful simplicity.”  And that goes double for the works in A Major.

The interpretation fashioned by the ensemble, and in particular by McGill, appears to focus more on the playful elements of the music than its delicacies and subtleties.  And indeed, the playing shines ebulliently during the playful third movement Menuetto and fourth movement Allegretto con Variazioni, where the writing is joyful and buoyant.  Still, I wish that the performers in the opening movement Allegro, the weightiest of the four, had paid as much attention to details of phrasing that lay beneath the exterior of its cheerful tempo. 

A gentle tenuto on the first note of the clarinet’s pervasive 16th-note passages, for example, would have gone a long way in adding much-welcomed grace and charm to McGill’s interpretation. Similarly, avoiding the separation of larger phrases into smaller ones by indiscriminately tonguing notes within phrases would have helped sustain meaningful musical sentences. (The late great clarinet pedagogue Stanley Hasty was fond of saying, “If you don’t have a good reason to tongue a note, don’t do it.”)

This is not to say that the Mozart lacked charm. Indeed, style and phrasing in the ensemble’s shaping of the sanguine second movement Larghetto, handsomely phrased and aided by McGill’s whisper-like but ever-so-focused tone, was quite lovely. It’s just that it’s natural for critics in performances as worthy as this to linger over the inevitable missed opportunities that could have produced a great performance — like the Brahms.

I’d be curious to hear McGill perform the Mozart Quintet again in 10 years’ time or so, and see how the wisdom of age and maturity adds to his musical tastes and artistic growth.  Until then, this remarkable clarinetist has given us lots and lots to savor.

Details Box:
What: CD review: Mozart & Brahms Clarinet Quintets
Who: Anthony McGill and Pacifica Quartet:
Label: Cedille Records, CDR 90000 147
CD release date: May 27, 2014
Running time: 1 hour, 8 minutes and 38 seconds
Ordering information: http://cedillerecords.org/music/product_info.php?products_id=1391

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