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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quintet in A major for clarinet and strings, K581 (1789) [30.54]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet, Op.115 (1891) [37.36]
Anthony McGill (clarinet)
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra (violin I); Sibbi Bernhardsson (violin II); Masumi Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. 30-31 August 2013, Auer Hall, Indiana University (Brahms); 9-10 September 2013 The Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York (Mozart), USA
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR90000 147 [68.38]

Mozart and Brahms who adopted Vienna as their home were motivated to write works for the clarinet by noted virtuosi, namely Anton Stadler in Mozart’s case and Richard Mühlfeld who inspired Brahms.

Earlier this year in March I reported from a recital given by the Pacifica Quartet at Herkulessaal, Munich. An engaging programme of Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Beethoven was stunningly performed by the Pacifica and I wrote, “string quartet playing doesn’t get any better than this.” Their excellence continues here and in collaboration with Anthony McGill this release can certainly rub shoulders with the finest accounts in the catalogue.

Where references to Mozart’s Quintet in A major for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, K581 are concerned the description ‘masterwork’ is extremely apt. In 1977 for a BBC Radio 4 programme, the English tenor Peter Pears selected Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as one of his all-time favourite classical music works. Pears waxed lyrical about the Clarinet Quintet stating that there was to be found in it “a serenity of the most extraordinary order, heavenly we call it (‘we’ probably a reference to Pears and his lifelong partner Benjamin Britten), but it’s not a dull heaven, it’s a wonderful, a reassuring heaven which one can’t have enough of … The world and heaven, where do they join? They join in music.” (Peter Pears: A Biography by Christopher Headington, Faber and Faber, 1993 edition).

Known to be particularly fond of the clarinet, Mozart wrote his Clarinet Quintet in 1789 for the clarinet virtuoso and fellow freemason Anton Stadler. The score is sometimes referred to as the Stadler Quintet a title that has been used less frequently in recent years. Stadler also provided Mozart with the inspiration for his famous Clarinet Concerto, K622; the Clarinet Trio, K498 Kegelstatt and probably also the unfinished Quintet for clarinet, basset-horn and string trio, K90 (580b). The Clarinet Quintet was composed at a time of remarkable artistic productivity. He had recently completed Don Giovanni, the D major Piano ConcertoCoronation’, K537; his Symphonies 39, 40 and 41Jupiter’ and was engaged on his three Prussian String Quartets and Cosi Fan Tutte.

In Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet the refined and engaging playing from the Pacifica and McGill is moody and emotional. The opening Allegro is devotedly interpreted and especially attractive is the lively playing and noticeable warmth of McGill’s clarinet. In the famous Larghetto with its gloriously Romantic song there is a gratifying sense of contentment with a level of warmth rarely encountered. The third movement Menuetto with its two Trios and sunny disposition is confidently performed. It is hard to imagine better playing than this affectionate performance of the final Allegretto con Variazioni. The depth of mood is developed convincingly and I especially admired the concluding variation/Coda played here with agile and gleaming expression.

My benchmark recording of the Mozart the vibrant and stylish 1975 Munich performance from the Amadeus Quartet with distinguished clarinetist Gervase de Peyer on Deutsche Grammophon. Worthy of note is the multi-award winning 1999 recording from the Talich Quartet and Bohuslav Zahradnik on Calliope. Also satisfying is the 2003 Bad Arolsen account from the Ensemble Villa Musica with Ulf Rodenhauser on MDG Gold.

In an Indian summer of creativity towards the end of his career in 1891 Brahms composed the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 114 and the Quintet for clarinet and strings, Op. 115. Three years later followed the two Clarinet (Viola) Sonatas, Op. 120. All these were especially composed for Richard Mühlfeld, the admired virtuoso clarinetist and principal of the Meiningen Orchestra, whose playing had been an inspiration to the ageing Brahms. The legacy of Brahms’ association with Mühlfeld is that all four works rank among the foremost in the clarinet repertoire. The substantial four movement Clarinet Quintet is the final expansive piece that Brahms composed; often described as a work of autumnal beauty. Here we find the serene contemplations of a man whose life is behind him; a score suffused with introspection and gentle reminiscence.

In the Brahms Clarinet Quintet the Pacifica and McGill are outstanding in a performance that reveals an underlying dark and sombre undertow. With the brooding moods of the opening Allegro McGill appealingly demonstrates his proficiency. The magnificent Adagio is given an achingly passionate reading that feels like a soothing balm washing over the listener. Admirable too is the agreeable and blithe mood of the Intermezzo-like Andantino movement. The players provide an exceptional interpretation that pervades the Con moto: Finale with yearning nostalgia.

My first choice account of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet is for the satisfying and refined playing of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and clarinetist Herbert Stähr. This was recorded in Germany in 1975 and can be heard on Philips Duo. I also admire the warm and characterful 2003/04 Oslo performance from Hans Christian Bræin and his string quartet on Simax Classics. Also well worth hearing is the naturally expressive 1990 recording from the Melos Quartet with Michel Portalon on Harmonia Mundi. There is a rewarding 1996 account from the Leipziger Streichquartett with clarinettist Karl Leister on MDG Gold.

This CD is eminently satisfying and a credit to all concerned. Striking throughout is the impeccable ensemble and unblemished intonation of the players who could have been breathing as a single entity. They find a combination of warmth and grace which is completely convincing. This is accomplished musicianship indeed. The warm sound of these recordings is pleasingly clear, well balanced between clarinet and strings, and not too resonant.

Michael Cookson


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