The dynamic, Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s superstar principal clarinetist Anthony McGill join forces for the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms — widely considered the greatest chamber works for this combination of instruments.
Mozart’s radiant Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, with its aria-like melodies, and Brahms’s expansive Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, with its haunting, sunset glow, are mature masterworks inspired by phenomenal clarinetists of the day.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791)
Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115
What the Critics Are Saying
These monumental clarinet war horses get a vibrant new treatment!
For clarinetists, the Quintets of Mozart and Brahms are not just the two finest and best known works of the genre, ever, but these pieces are standard repertoire. It is simply not possible to go through a clarinet performance program anywhere and not have to learn these works. For the general public, it is highly likely that you have heard at least bits of these masterworks at some time.
There are, understandably, many, many recordings of these Quintets out there and even clarinetists may be tempted to go listen to a recording by one of the current or historical “big names” in clarinet playing (e.g. Leister, Shifrin, DePeyer, Wright et al) The best advice I would give anyone is do not ignore this new and very satisfying recording by an up and coming “big name”, Anthony McGill.
McGill has served as the principal clarinetist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the past several years but he recently was named principal clarinet for the New York Philharmonic. Anthony serves as an inspirational story for young players, in my opinion. McGill is originally from the inner city in Chicago and was a bit of a child prodigy. Through his own appreciable skills and the attention of some influential professionals he attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has taught at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and the Mannes College of Music in New York City.
Anthony is one of the few black musicians to hold a principal chair in a major symphony orchestra. I have had the pleasure of corresponding with him on occasion and he is also a very nice guy. As a clarinetist, he has a warm, attractive tone and ample technique coupled with a sensitive ear for phrasing that serves him well in these masterpieces.
As often played and recorded and performed as these two works are, there is still plenty of room for interpretation (or misinterpretation or “over interpretation”) For example, the final Allegretto con Variazoni in the Mozart can be really rushed and “showy” for the soloist at the expense of genuine period style. Similarly, the lush Adagio second movement in the Brahms can be “gypsy-ed” to the point where there is too much rubato or it drags.
McGill avoids both these pitfalls and his performances here are beautiful but not mannered and wholly impressive but not needlessly showy. His approach to the works as true ensemble pieces is helped tremendously by the skills and musicianship of the Indiana based Pacifica Quartet. This is a wonderful quartet in a sea of quartets. I have heard them but once before, in one volume of their very important “Soviet Experience” quartets on Cedille and they remain incredibly impressive.
I enjoyed this disc a great deal. I do think that Anthony McGill is a master clarinetist that all players but especially young, aspiring performers ought to emulate. For anyone wishing to have a recording of these amazing works, I know there are so many out there to choose from but this is very good and highly recommended.
After 20 years together, the Pacifica Quartet continues to move from strength to strength. Its 10th-anniversity Mendelssohn quartets are arguably as fine as any recordings available. There is its near-definitive Elliott Carter cycle for Naxos. And the Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle, though not offering the last measure of Russian anguish, has been highly (and rightly) praised. Now comes this coupling of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets. Central to its success—and it is a superb pair of performances—is the partnership with Anthony McGill, for many years co-principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and recently named to first desk in the New York Philharmonic, at least for this next season. Obviously he is an orchestral musician of consummate skill. He is also acclaimed as a soloist and chamber musician. He joined the Quartet on tour, during which he and Pacifica Quartet honed the performances to perfection and Cedille, happily, seized the opportunity to capture their collaboration.
Perhaps the most appealing quality of these performances is the absolute sense of rightness regarding tempo and phrasing. There is no sense of exaggeration; no doctrinaire interpretive points are being made. The Mozart is notable for the ensemble’s lightness of touch: leisurely, perhaps, but with an appealing lilt. This is heard not only in the Allegretto con variazioni finale, where that is expected, but throughout all but the pensive Larghetto, which is quite magical in its own right. This sparkle contrasts nicely with the Brahms Quintet’s autumnal glow, especially in the darkly wistful opening and closing of the Adagio, though here, as in the Mozart, it is the variety of tone and expression that captivates. Clarity of texture and precision of execution are givens as well, but take nothing from the remarkable heart of either performance—heart achieved by all five of the ensemble, but especially by McGill, who seems particularly sensitive to the special emotive role of the clarinet in both of these works. These are performances of the highest order, ones that I might, while in their thrall, be inclined to call best.
Of course, this is a common pairing of two of the cornerstones of the chamber repertoire, so the idea of looking for a best recording is really rather pointless. Everyone who loves these works will have a favorite recording, either paired as here or in separate issues. Among those paired, my recent favorites have included two other orchestral principals: the Berlin Philharmonic’s Karl-Heinz Steffens and orchestral colleagues of the Scharoun Ensemble, Berlin (Tudor) and Vienna Philharmonic principal Matthias Schorn with the Minetti String Quartet (CAvi). Among the recent separate issues, I am partial to Sharon Kam in both the Mozart (Berlin Classics) and the Brahms (Harmonia Mundi USA). The Mozart is of particular interest, as Kam plays the work on basset clarinet, as dedicatee Anton Stadler would have, with its additional range a third below a standard A clarinet. McGill, and indeed most clarinetists, do not, as Mozart’s autograph for the clarinet quintet (and for that matter, the concerto) no longer exists, and the published score was adapted for A clarinet. Kam’s reconstruction emphasizes the lower reaches of the basset clarinet most convincingly. For those wishing the Mozart on basset clarinet with period instruments, I particularly like Colin Lawson and The Revolutionary Drawing Room (Clarinet Classics). This new Cedille recording does not displace these favored new discoveries, or some old friends, for that matter. But it most certainly joins them.
If I have one concern about this new recording, it is the occasional prominence of the clarinet in the mix. It is not a major problem, and it was more noticeable on a pair of fairly bright headphones than over good speakers. The engineering is fine otherwise, and the issue certainly isn’t enough to prevent me giving this release the very warmest of recommendations.
“The pure, gorgeous tone and expressive musicianship of the clarinetist Anthony McGill meshes with the talents of the excellent Pacifica Quartet for thoroughly enjoyable readings…”
As a general rule, I don’t take all that much interest in new recordings of standard repertoire that is already hugely well represented in the catalog. But rules were made to be broken, and performers like clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet provide the perfect opportunity. Yes, the clarinet quartets of Mozart and Brahms represent well-trod ground, and it isn’t as if these performances reveal any radical new thinking about the music. Yet the playing is so suave, so gleamingly elegant and so full of textural riches that you can almost imagine yourself hearing these pieces for the first time. McGill especially is a joy, bringing a combination of vivacity and soulfulness to the Mozart and then deepening those qualities to reflect the autumnal qualities in Brahms’ writing. The Pacifica Quartet makes a worthy collaborator, providing plush yet translucent accompaniment when the clarinet comes to the fore and stepping up when necessary with close-knit ensemble playing. In all, this is a keeper.
Program NotesDownload Album Booklet
Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets
Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux
Anton Paul Stadler (1753–1812) and his brother Johann were both clarinetists with the Vienna Music Society in the 1770s, and were also employed as musicians in the household of Count Dmitry Golitsin, Russian ambassador to the Viennese imperial court. In the early 1780s, Emperor Joseph II organized his own wind band — oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns — and the Stadlers became part of this group, known in 18th-century Germany and Austria as a Harmonie. By the time they became the first official clarinet players in the imperial court orchestra, Anton Stadler had already met a talented Viennese newcomer whose reputation as both composer and performer had preceded his arrival from his native city of Salzburg: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Stadler organized the 1784 concert at which Mozart’s grand Wind Serenade (Gran Partita) was premiered, and also participated in the first performance of the composer’s Quintet for Piano and Winds (K. 361 and K. 452, respectively). Later he’d be the inspiration for the Kegelstatt Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano (K. 498) and Mozart’s last completed instrumental composition, the Clarinet Concerto K. 622. Stadler first played the concerto in Prague, where he was in the opera orchestra for La Clemenza di Tito, whose score features clarinet prominently.
During the 1790s Stadler toured Russia, Germany, and the Baltic states as a concert soloist while continuing his role in the imperial court orchestra. He retired as a performer around the year 1800 but continued to teach.
The Serenade, Piano and Wind Quintet, Concerto, and Trio are all marvelous, but it’s the piece Mozart wrote in 1789, calling it Stadler’s Quintet, that immortalized this great woodwind artist’s name. The A Major Quintet for Clarinet and Strings can be heard as a musical manifestation of friendship, reminding us in every measure how Mozart and Stadler found each other kindred spirits.
They even shared a joint attraction to the Freemasonry movement, with its promise of universal brotherhood and enlightenment. Both were members of the Viennese Masonic lodge called New Crowned Hope.
This is one of Mozart’s best-known chamber compositions and a special favorite for the sheer beauty of its themes and skillful interplay among the five instruments. Mozart was an outstanding composer of concertos, and the Quintet has the sound of a mini-concerto at times when the clarinet comes to the fore. For the most part, however, it’s pure chamber-music with equal partners.
The serenity and sunlit good cheer of the entire piece is heralded right at the beginning by the strings’ gently harmonious opening theme. The clarinet joins in almost immediately with a comment that starts in its mellow low register and rises to its bright higher one. As the sonata-form movement unfolds, the first violin and cello have important solo passages along with the clarinet. In the exposition, three distinct themes are presented. The short development mostly features the string players; the recapitulation brings the original themes back in elaborated form.
The Larghetto movement has been compared to a Nocturne or Romance — terms that came along in the 19th-century’s Romantic era (and are perhaps unsuited to describing a Classical-era quintet). Another comparison that’s sometimes made is to an operatic aria, which feels more relevant, given Mozart’s mastery of that realm. It’s less an aria than a duet, however, because the movement is dominated by a lyrical dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin. Muted strings add an aura of enchantment and distant beauty.
In the elegant Menuetto, inward-turning emotion gives way to extroverted conversation, led by the clarinet. The movement contains two contrasting Trio sections, the first for strings alone, the second a dancing duet for clarinet and violin. To conclude the Quintet, Mozart presents a cheerful theme with five variations and a coda. Contrasts of tempo and a brief excursion into the minor mode enliven the sequence of variations, with the viola given prominence in Variation 3. Throughout this finale, the clarinet takes the lead and, as in a concerto, is given a short solo cadenza. The coda brings all five players together in happy harmony.
Richard Mühlfeld (1856–1907) joined Germany’s Meiningen Court Orchestra as a violinist, but soon switched over to his second instrument, the clarinet, on which he was largely self-taught. In addition to his work for Meiningen, which was closely associated with Brahms’s music, Mühlfeld spent several summers as clarinetist for the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra playing Wagner’s operas. Brahms was first captivated by Mühlfeld’s artistry at a Meiningen concert in March 1891, not long after Brahms told his publisher that he was going to retire from composing. It can be debated whether he really meant that, but hearing Mühlfeld certainly fired Brahms up to return to his craft. In summer 1891, he wrote a Clarinet Trio with cello and piano and a Clarinet Quintet with four strings. Three years later, he produced a pair of sonatas for clarinet and piano that he also transcribed for viola and piano. (His canon of final works is rounded out by the Four Serious Songs and a set of 11 chorale-preludes for organ.)
Mühlfeld premiered the Clarinet Quintet in Meiningen in fall 1891 with the string quartet headed by Brahms’s violinist friend, Joseph Joachim. Joachim would later introduce both the Trio and the Quintet at concerts in Berlin.
Similarities (beyond instrumentation) between Brahms’s Op. 115 and Mozart’s K. 581 include their use of muted strings in the slow movements and finales laid out in theme-and-variations form. Yet the tone of the two works is quite different. Predominantly in a minor key, the Brahms is more flavored with melancholy, more passionate, even a little portentous at times. Its first two movements are lengthy, the last two shorter and more direct. There’s a remarkable sense of thematic unity, as Brahms ingeniously transforms and expands his opening idea to generate themes heard later.
The Quintet is often described as “autumnal” — perhaps because, as one of the composer’s last works, it comes from the autumn of his life. But it’s certainly not a sad piece: vigorous and intense, it has a variety of moods and reveals a musical genius still reveling in showcasing his skills.
The Allegro finds the clarinet and violins first in D major, the relative of B minor; this home key is eventually established by the cello’s opening theme. Since the two main themes of this movement are closely related, it can be heard as variations as well as a standard sonata form of exposition–development–recapitulation. In the emotionally intense Adagio, dreamy and distant opening and closing sections surround an agitated central portion that’s been linked to Brahms’s lifelong fondness for the improvisatory style of Hungarian gypsy music. The most prominent voice in the Adagio is the clarinet.
The third movement takes its time reaching the expected Scherzo tempo. It opens Andantino with the clarinet playing in D major, joined by the viola and cello. Then the Scherzo proper finds the strings playing a related theme, but in B minor. In the finale, a passionate, dark-hued theme is varied with the clarinet partnering each string player in turn. The strongly rhythmic second variation is once more reminiscent of the Hungarian style. A variation in which the viola takes a leading voice progresses to a repeat of the Quintet’s opening theme. This leads to the coda and a powerful final chord.
Andrea Lamoreaux is Music Director of 98.7wfmt, Chicago’s Classical Experience
Total Time: 68:38
Producer/Engineer: Judith Sherman
Editing: Bill Maylone
Editing Assistance Jeanne Velonis
Brahms: August 30 & 31, 2013; Auer Hall, Indiana University
Mozart: September 9 &10, 2013; The Performing Arts Center
Purchase College, State University of New York
Front Cover Design: Luis Ibarra
Inside Booklet & Inlay Card Design: Nancy Bieschke
Photography Pacifica Quartet: Saverio Truglia
Anthony McGill: David Finlayson
Funded in part by a grant from Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation.
© 2014 Cedille Records/Cedille Chicago