Brahms/Mozart: Clarinet Quintets; Anthony McGill; Pacifica Quartet

German clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld (1856 – 1907) must have been one hell of a player. His artistry nudged a semi retired Brahms to write the seminal chamber work for the instrument, the Clarinet Quintet (1891), a fine trio and the two most famous sonatas for the instrument.

The same could be said for Austrian clarinettist Anton Stadler (1753 – 1812). His playing inspired Mozart to write an equally wonderful Clarinet Quintet (1789) and the instrument’s greatest Concerto (1791).

Both quintets fit nicely onto one CD and most clarinet players in first chair orchestral positions or those rarities having a go at a solo career take a shot at them. The recorded standards for this pairing have been very high. In fact, many players of all styles — US, German system, or the old standbys, Brits attached to their Boosey & Hawkes 1010s, sound superb in this repertoire.

For the German system sound and style, you’ll not find better than the recent Harmonia Mundi release with teacher/soloist Jörg Widmann and the Arcanto Quartet. It only has the Mozart Quintet, but what a performance. Musical, liquid tone and unrivalled elegance. If you can find the Brahms Quintet DGG recording with Karajan’s clarinettist, Karl Leister, you’ll find the same level of musicality. The Brits weigh in with ex LSO principal Gervase de Peyer on DGG with a great Mozart Quintet and Thea King in a wonderful Brahms on Hyperion. Be warned, the British vibrato is not for everyone, but can add much to the overall musicality.

Which brings us across the pond and directly to New York City, home of Anthony McGill, principal clarinet with the Metropolitan Opera. McGill performs the requisite pairing and the recording comes from wonderful Cedille Records.

McGill is a fabulous clarinet player. Good enough to be chosen as a solo musician at Obama’s inauguration. He has a limpid tone, flawless intonation and that liquidity and legato that seemingly is only the domain of the clarinet. His interplay with the Pacifica Quartet (founded in 1994 and in residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music) is second to none and they combine in superb ensemble playing.

McGill is OCD regarding dynamics. They are exactly what Mozart and Brahms indicate. No other player comes close to matching them. McGill takes a few breaths where others do not (although he does manage the opening of the Brahms Adagio beautifully in one long breath). They are musical breaths and perfectly acceptable, but others eschew them.

I have not forgotten the equally important string players. They must be in tune with the soloist’s demands and ideas but lead in their own way. There is room for rubato in the passionate Brahms yet the four-square Mozart must not sound it. Here is where the excellent Pacifica Quartet is bettered by some of the more legendary quartets like the Amadeus (Leister/Brahms, de Peyer/Mozart), the Tokyo (the superb Jon Manasse on clarinet), and newer ensembles like Widmann’s Arcanto and the Jerusalem Quartet with the excellent Sharon Kam on clarinet. These ensembles capture the swagger of the Mozart and the rejuvenated Brahms best.

For new recordings, the competition is strong and legendary performances are many and can be had on the cheap. McGill holds his own with the very best of them, demonstrates the no-vibrato, American sound beautifully and collaborates musically with the Pacifica Quartet. If you are in need of this particular pairing in the very best modern sound, enjoy the US style sound, and like your classical composers played in ‘urtext edition’, then McGill’s your man. Recommended.

Cedille Records

2014 release

Playing time 68:38