Musicians from Marlboro well rewarded those who hazarded the snow banks (if this had been New York, Philadelphia or Washington, we would have said “braved” them) on Sunday to fill the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall. The elegance of the footwear on display took a hit from the weather, though. The musicians (Anthony McGill, clarinet; Emilie-Anne Gendron and David McCarroll, violins; Daniel Kim, viola; and Marcy Rosen, cello), who appear mostly to be based in New York, luckily escaped the atmospheric chaos by arriving in Boston on Saturday. Their bill of fare, an elegant exercise over three centuries, one could waggishly describe it as “music of three ‘90s” inasmuch as it comprised a trio by Beethoven (1798), a quartet by Penderecki (1993) and a quintet by Brahms (1891).
They began with a strong case for taking the early works of Beethoven quite seriously. His String Trio No. 5 in C Minor, op. 9 No. 3, stands as one of his first works in the key that would prove so important to him. Like most of its brethren in the composer’s catalog, it served as a vehicle for music of an intense, dramatic character. That spin put on it by McCarroll, Kim and Rosen gave strong stress in the first movement on the motivic development of the opening four notes, and the rhythmic punch provided in the scherzo—a movement that was unusual both for its use of that name and quicker tempo, rather than a minuet, and for its name-belying intensity. The use of dynamics to shape phrases constitutes the characteristic expressive focus of this ensemble. As it was in most of what they played, was, this seemd most usually evident in their beginning a phrase quietly, swelling and then retreating. While this is SOP for soloists and long-established standing ensembles like string quartets and piano trios, the polished execution and generally well-judged scope of the effect was admirable in a more ad hoc assemblage such as this. The finale, which developed into a more genially Haydnesque mode, ended with delicacy and grace.
According to BMInt’s archives (beginning in 2009, when we fired up), the Clarinet Quartet of Krzysztof Penderecki hasn’t been performed locally since 2013 in Somerville. For those of a certain age, the name Penderecki conjures either a frisson of excitement or a shudder of dread, in either case relating to his avant-garde work of the 1960s (our colleague Brian Schuth, no enemy of modern, modernist or avant-garde music, used Penderecki as something to describe “a vicious ugly sound that tore a hole in the musical continuity”). But that’s not the Penderecki of today, or indeed of the last 20-plus years. Although there were earlier pieces that adumbrated his current approach, this quartet was a decisive inflection point in establishing his strong relation to the past, not only in its tonal harmonic language, but in its receptivity to the historic traditions of compositional form and narrative structure.
That’s not to say that the quartet is a replica of something old. Its four movements, slow-fast-fast-slow, appear lopsided in construction, the finale being longer than the rest put together, and the overall affect is both elegiac and satirical (in later years, Penderecki has offered nods in the direction of Shostakovich in this respect, notably in his Sextet for clarinet, horn, string trio and piano). The Marlboro group gave the quartet as fine a reading as we’d ever expect to hear, with McGill, who is the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, taking the lead (Penderecki’s ensemble writing in this piece is, like works as disparate as the Weber and Hindemith quintets, more clarinet-centric than is the Brahms quintet). His tone is very pure, with a narrow vibrato (yay!), and he deployed these virtues expertly in shaping phrases and in making the motivic kernels of the music intelligible. The opening slow Notturno is chiefly engaged in setting out the building blocks of the work. The short frenzied scherzo and crackpot waltz-serenade that follow (compositional hat-tips in the latter to Schoenberg and Hindemith as well as Shostakovich) set the stage for the finale, titled Abschied, farewell, which recycles the motivic matter from before (turned into rocking phrases on seconds and thirds) in resonant amber hues. The playing by everyone was first-rate, as one would expect, with particularly gorgeous sound from Gendron and the other strings (he doesn’t do avant-garde any more, but Penderecki does know a thing or two about string coloration and when to deploy special effects). The ending is signaled by a long cello pedal, which slowly gathers the other instruments into its orbit until finishing with a discreet but glowing major chord. Not your father’s Penderecki.
When you’re a clarinetist hitting the road to show off your chops, you’ve got to do Brahms. Of his four late works for clarinet, the Quintet in B Minor, op. 115 rises not only the Everest within its category (several categories, actually: Brahms clarinet music, Brahms chamber music, clarinet quintets generally, and music for clarinet and strings), but also occupies the pinnacle of chamber music in any genre. It is frequently remarked that Brahms modeled his work on the Mozart clarinet quintet, but that observation says very little. The similarities are fairly superficial points of form and treatment (ending with a variations movement, keeping the clarinet a collegial chamber player rather than a virtuosic soloist). Mozart’s lovely and brilliantly executed composition was not nearly as ambitious aesthetically or emotionally as Brahms’s. To hear the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in the afternoon is to commit yourself to an evening of silence; it’s that kind of piece.
The reading from the Marlboro consortium was one of the better ones we’ve heard in quite a while. The tempi chosen were neither fast nor slow, the ensemble was impeccable, and the dynamic shaping mentioned above for the Beethoven came significantly back into play here. The sound adopted was, for the most part, the expected autumnal glow and the heavy-hearted nostalgia for which Brahms earned the sobriquet “the poet of regret.” The string playing could not be faulted for clarity of line, silken tone, or gravitas. McGill did what he had to do—produced the fluid, controlled lines and occasional wide leaps without a hint of cracking—and then some: we might have missed it, but it appeared that he took the entire opening line of the slow movement on a single breath, which is no mean achievement (he didn’t replicate that feat when it repeated). The slow movement mazy contain the most taxing and exposed writing for the clarinet, what with the Hungarian (actually Gypsy, which isn’t the same thing, as Bartók and Kodály later demonstrated) middle section, whose fearsome grace-note runs McGill articulated with perfect clarity. While technically impeccable, McGill’s rendition wasn’t quite as fiery as some others we’ve heard. Novelist John Barth wrote to the effect that “while heartfelt incompetence and cold technique have their charms, what you really want is passionate virtuosity.” While there was no question about competence, and a reasonable amount of passion, this performance was just a tiny touch on the “cold technique” side of the ledger to get that third Michelin star; but it was definitely worth a detour.