Saturday, November 27, 2021

Longtime friends get together to deliver core clarinet-piano repertoire, plus a brief pandemic response

Most of the music on "Here With You" occupies such a high place in the estimation of clarinet players that they use it to refute joking expressions of pity from violinists and pianists about their repertoire. They have the Opus 120 Brahms sonatas, after all.

McGill is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.
Anthony McGill chuckles about it in a podcast interview with James Ginsburg, founder and director of Cedille Records, which this month issued "Here With You,"  a recital disc the clarinetist performs with pianist Gloria Chien.  He's referring to the two late sonatas for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms. In length, they occupy two-thirds of the CD, which is completed by Carl Maria von Weber's "Grand Duo Concertant" and Jessie Montgomery's "Peace."

The partnership is so solid and inspiring that the CD title is justified by the McGill-Chien bond itself, as well as its indication of the value of getting together as musicians and friends after the dread year of 2020, then publishing the result. Signs that the pandemic is receding, while undercut by the threat of new variants, have allowed new ways of addressing the long-running health crisis through the arts. This disc is part of a widespread affirmation of that progress.

The McGill-Chien rapport can be traced back to the 2006 Music@Menlo Festival, where they discovered a mutual affinity for Brahms. On this recording, the launch of the second sonata (in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2) seems to move the listener into an ongoing conversation between the performers. The decorative effect of triplets stands against assertive off-beat rhythms, mainly in the piano. But the compatibility is unfailing.

There's mutual attentiveness to dynamics, especially at the "sotto voce" level. McGill's tone tempts one to make tactile analogies to silk or velvet. His phrasing merits praise throughout both sonatas. I was first struck by it at the very start of Sonata No. 1 in F minor. The initial "paragraph" on the first page diminishes exquisitely with no weakening of tonal integrity. Accents and rhetorical vigor in the Vivace finale of that sonata never carry any hint of stridency. The cliché of labeling late Brahms as autumnal is not out of place as applied to these performances. But this duo helps us remember that fall is a season of transition, always promising that the cycle of life and its inevitable renewal remain strong.

Gloria Chien is a simpatico partner.
The Chicago label can lay claim to McGill as a native son, as well as touting the recent appointment of Montgomery as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the interview with Ginsburg, the clarinetist calls her 2020 work "Peace" "a beacon into the space that we were in that year." Despite its under-five-minute length, it "was not something we decided to throw in there" between the giants of Brahms and Weber, but a hallmark of the emotional and musical connections of "Here With You."

The slightly thorny piano introduction suggests the stress of last year's Covid-19 restrictions, upon which the clarinet melody sheds balm. The wind instrument becomes the protagonist as the piano toggles between understated chords in response. This seemed to capture the wariness and even emotional paralysis of 2020, but over "Peace"'s efficient length, the two instruments come into a kind of pacific adjustment to new circumstances. Chien shows herself to be a full-spectrum player, always setting the partnership on a solid foundation, with inspiration coming from her side as well as McGill's throughout the program.

The showpiece by Weber amounts to an exercise in virtuosic spectacle, starting with the Allegro con fuoco. The honesty of the "duo" label is quickly substantiated by the piano, which becomes a vehicle for operatic display in the second movement, Andante con moto. The finale, Rondo: Allegro, sets up a fine gallop in tandem, rising to exhilarating heights in a brilliant coda. The security of both performers and their joy in collaboration are never in doubt.

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