Pacifica Quartet’s new CD lacks variety…Sigh.

I eagerly anticipated a new disc (at last!) from the Pacifica Quartet. But I grimaced at the thought of an entire program comprised solely of music for clarinet + string quartet. And I wasn’t wrong.

And right off the bat, I noticed yet another drab, gray, dreary, unenticing and thoroughly unappealing cover picture from the good folks at Cedille Records. Time and again I see this on CD covers from this label and I simply don’t understand it. Why on earth would they choose to use such unattractive cover art to entice people to buy their CDs?

But never mind – it’s the music that matters. And as much as I love and respect the Pacifica Quartet, and I don’t mind clarinetist Anthony McGill, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Simply put – an entire disc of unfamiliar clarinet quintets is just too much. I can’t imagine why anyone thought this programming was a good idea. I found it lacked variety and I lost interest soon into the second piece. Moreover, starting off with a very long (almost 14 minutes!), slow-moving, completely new work was ill-advised. 

Worse, the recorded sound exacerbates the lack of variety by balancing the clarinet too prominently and forward in the mix, leaving the string quartet distant and lacking presence. It’s as if the engineer considered these to be clarinet concertos with string accompaniment, which does this music no favors. The clarinet is exposed and sounds a bit bright and soon grows fatiguing on the ear.  

These issues caused me to tire of listening long before I got to the end. I even tried listening to the second half of the CD on a different day, which elicited the exact same reaction. It’s just too much, particularly with the forwardly balanced clarinet.

And most importantly, these esoteric, contemporary American works for clarinet and string quartet are simply not that interesting to the average listener (unless consumed in very small quantities). As a collection, they will likely appeal only to the most ardent clarinet admirers and players. For the rest of us, they all tend to sound the same. Oh there is some good music intermittently along the way, but frankly I found most of it instantly forgettable, despite excellent playing and musicianship by all involved. 

Ultimately I was disappointed this album featured Anthony McGill so predominantly while the Pacifica Quartet was rather undervalued. ​I can sum up this album in one sentence: Oh how I wish the wonderful Pacifica Quartet had included just one or two works involving the clarinet and dedicated the remainder to pure string quartet music.

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