By Jonathan Blumhofer
Johannes Brahms’s wistful 1894 Clarinet Sonatas receive fantastic performances.
2021 has been something of a banner year for the Chicago-based label Cedille. Their Leo Sowerby series was a welcome surprise (I reviewed one of those releases in August) and there’s a dynamite Beethoven string quartet cycle in the works (keep your eyes peeled to these pages in January).
Wrapping things up for now, though, is Here With You, a compilation of pieces by Johannes Brahms, Carl Maria von Weber, and Jessie Montgomery that features New York Philharmonic principal clarinet Anthony McGill and pianist Gloria Chien.
Coming, as it does, at the end of a bittersweet year, the album’s program feels more fitting than ever.
To be sure, one doesn’t need any excuse to hear Brahms’s wistful 1894 Clarinet Sonatas – especially when they’re performed with the sumptuous elegance and intelligence that McGill and Chien bring to these readings.
In the F-major Sonata no. 1, the pair brings out the music’s sweeping melodic writing with a good deal of naturalness and flexibility. The first movement is terrifically voiced (the low keyboard writing, especially, speaks lucidly) and smartly balanced. In the second, McGill and Chien engage in an effortlessly beautiful dialogue between their parts. After agreeably drawing out the third’s gently lilting lines, they deliver a finale that bracingly combines singing and dancing gestures into an exclamation of sheer joy.
It’s a fantastic performance – as is the take on the E-flat-major Sonata no. 2 that follows. Here, though, the benefits of the pair’s textural clarity and unanimity of musical purpose further serve to highlight the subtle compositional devices at work in the piece, as well as the sense of invention that fires so much of Brahms’s writing in it.
Weber’s 1816 Grand Duo Concertante is less dazzling as a piece of music, though it’s certainly satisfying as a showpiece – and for both instruments. McGill and Chien turn in an exuberant performance, one that ably captures the freewheeling vigor and vim of the Duo’s outer movements as well as the pathos of the middle one.
Sandwiched between the Brahms and Weber selections is Montgomery’s Peace. A short essay written at the beginning of the pandemic, Peace mixes mournful clarinet melodies with a gently dissonant piano part that swells like so many waves on the sea.
In a note on the work, the composer writes about coming to terms in these months with recognizing sadness “not as a negative emotion, but as a necessary dynamic to the human experience.” So the music flows, its moll-Dur-ish progressions gradually coming to some sense of acceptance, if not quite resolution.
McGill and Chien deliver an affecting premiere recording of this affecting score, one that convincingly captures its mix of anger, grief, bewilderment, and resilience.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.