Classical Music

LEBRECHT LISTENS | The Talents Of Clarinetist Anthony McGill Showcased In Two New Recordings

Clarinetist Anthony McGill (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Anthony McGill: Here With You — Brahms Sonatas/American Stories (Cedille)


🎧  Cedille |

The principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic can claim with some ease to be America’s finest. He has played for a decade at the Met, serenaded Barack Obama at his inauguration, commissioned screeds of new music for his instrument, and is professor at Juilliard, actively seeking students from under-represented backgrounds.

As for the music, he has few peers. In two simultaneous releases, I was keen to hear what he made of Brahms last pair of sonatas, written for clarinet (or viola) and piano. The pieces, while valedictory, constantly challenge players to colour them in. McGill does not disappoint. With a downy softness and a hundred shades of autumn leaves, he grips the attention with every phrase. There is nothing bluff about his Brahms. It is gently empathetic, utterly humane. The pianist, Gloria Chien, sounds daunted at times by the emotions he exposes.

The same album contains a piece by Jessie Montgomery, written as the COVID pandemic broke; it is a stunned evocation of the trauma we entered in March 2020.

McGill’s second album, working with the Pacifica Quartet, engages with four other American composers. Richard Danielpour writes a pleasant kind of pseudo-classical style once favoured by the Disney studios. James Lee III twirls a clarinet around winsome laments for Indigenous people and their dispossession. Ben Shirley writes a High Sierra Sonata of imposing landscapes, while Valerie Coleman’s Shotgun Houses recounts the turbulent life of the boxer Muhammad Ali.

All are tonal, listenable, over-literal, interchangeable. If they tell us anything of the performer’s taste, it is that he likes it smooth. The playing is, once more, immaculate. But if you want to hear true interpretation, stick with the Brahms. You won’t find a better modern account of those late sonatas.

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