Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
The Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet
Sofie Sunnerstam, Manu Berkeljon (violins)
Anders Norén(viola), Tomas Blanch (‘cello)
Anna McGregor (clarinet)
Emmy LINDSTRÖM – Song for Em (2006)
Anthony RITCHIE – Clarinet Quintet (2006)
W.A.MOZART – Clarinet Quintet K.581 (1789)
Lower Hutt Little Theatre
Thursday July 3rd, 2014
“A concert tour of the new and old from the northern and southern hemispheres” was the entirely apt, refreshingly hype-free description of the undertaking which produced this concert at Lower Hutt earlier this month – Anna McGregor, New Zealand-born clarinetist, was originally supposed to tour New Zealand with the Antithesis Quintet, a group she had founded in 2010 while studying and working in Sweden. Due to injury incapacitating one of the players, things were rearranged, post-haste, with two of the original quintet, Anna McGregor and Sofie Sunnerstam (violin), joining some of the principal players in the Swedish ensemble, the Dalasinfonietten, Falen, with whom McGregor has been on contract.
One of these was another New Zealander, Manu Berkeljon, originally from the West Coast, and an experienced orchestral violinist, having worked with groups in New Zealand, Australia and Europe. She’s currently Associate Principal 2nd Violin in the Dalasinfonietten. The new group, called the Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet, was completed by Anders Norén (viola) and Tomas Blanch (cello). The group brought the original Antithesis Quintet programme content with them, including the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets as well as Anthony Ritchie’s 20006 Clarinet Quintet.
The group chose to open their concert with the kind of item that the redoubtable Michael Flanders (of “Flanders and Swann” fame) might have described as “helping to get the pitch of the hall” – this was an unashamedly romantic piece by one Emmy Lindström, called “Song about Em”, a darkly-swaying piece with a discernible melody whose repetitions charmed without complication – rather like a light piece by, say, Alfven.
Sterner stuff hove to immediately afterwards, in the guise of Antony Ritchie’s Clarinet Quintet, written to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. We were advised by the programme notes that Ritchie took “motivic ideas from (Mozart’s) Quintet, but without direct reference until the third movement”. Though there exists the proviso that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, it seemed from the music, to me, that Anthony Ritchie had something else on his mind – the music occasionally was stalked by other shades, Bartok and Shostakovich having, to my ears much more of a resonant presence than did the near-divine Wolfie…..
The work began evocatively, a clarinet solo brooding darkly amid ghostly rustlings from the strings, leading to some quixotic declamations and the beginnings of motoric rhythms, begun by the strings and added to by the clarinet – edgy contouring, explosive accents and tight, highly-strung harmonies.
Moments of repose were given little room as the instruments took up the rhythmic trajectories once again, this time tossing the figurations between one another, tones and timbres beautifully playing off one another, each instrument at certain points raising and asserting its particular voice. I liked for instance the swaying, sighing violin line throughout one episode contrasting with the bouncy, driving rhythms underneath, before the voices were gathered in for a toccata-like ensemble, whose plain speaking obviously exhausted all participants, abruptly leading to the movement’s end.
Unisons from the strings fragmented into individual lines, leaving the clarinet to rhapsodize and ruminate, at the slow movement’s beginning. The strings persisted, the sounds becoming declamatory as an impasse was reached, the lines clustering together, prompting what seemed to resemble techno-timbres, the strings hissing and scratching, still trying to bring the rhapsodizing clarinet into line! The strings then drew deeply and “attacked” their chords, after which they worked through an intensely-wrought and closely-knit passage, gaining a truce with the clarinet and settling all issues when the latter followed the strings back to their movement-opening gestures at the very end. I got the feeling that this music had intuitive more than formulaic motivations for the sequences and instruments to be doing what they did – very Mozartean in that sense, I thought……..
I enjoyed the Nielsen-like oscillations of the finale, passing from instrument to instrument, and backdropping birdsong figurations from the clarinet taken up by the violins and intensified, making for sound-vistas whose barriers seemed gloriously expanded as the music went on. The players seemed to my ears to really “take” to the writing, building up Shostakovich-like intensities and creating a feeling of combatants at a tournament, before the music enigmatically gave up its ghost. As for the aforementioned Wolfie, he may well have been flitting between and around some of the phrases, but neither myself nor a musician friend with whom I sat caught any kind of pre-echo of the work we were going to listen to after the interval – we obviously needed a different kind of listening wavelength……
Still, the experience sharpened and focused one’s listening sensibilities, enabling a keener appreciation of the performance of the Mozart which followed, pre-echoes or no pre-echoes! I liked the slight “huskiness” of the string tones at the beginning, a sound with a distinctive character, not excessively and blandly moulded, one against which the clarinet’s liquid outpourings strongly and distinctively contrasted. The chording supporting the second subject had lovely “squeeze-box” timbres, perhaps enhanced by the Lower Hutt venue’s dry-ish sound, though any suggestion of restricted tones was soon dispelled by the ensemble’s lively dynamic range, from the softest breathings to fully assertive chordings at some of the cadences. I also liked how the players conveyed the sense of coming to this music for the first time, even when making the repeats – their sounds had a fresh, exploratory quality, probably as much to do with listening to one another as playing the music.
Surely the slow movement of this work contains some of the most heavenly utterances devised by a human being! – Anna McGregor’s playing of the opening had at once a purity and a warmth which suggested some kind of concourse between this world and the divinity of whatever persuasion – occasionally I wanted the first violin to sing a little more ardently in response, but only as a personal preference – there was no doubt as to the sensitivity of the interchanges. This could be heard as well in the deftness of the playing’s “touching in’ of darker hues before the final cadence. Then, a quicker tempo than I was normally used to for the Minuet made for the liveliest of contrasts, and some beautifully characterized sequences – for example the appropriately chalk-and-cheese Trios. First came a strings-only affair, sombre, edgy and unsettled, and a bit later the clarinet-led melody which is, of course, one of the world’s charmers.
From all of this one could presume that the theme-and-variations finale would go swimmingly – and so it proved, from the opening’s engaging “strut” of the strings, through the variants of rhythm, texture and mood presented by the different episodes, among which featured a kind of “lover’s complaint” from the viola. At the conclusion of the following “gurgling clarinet” section, whose playfulness between the instruments greatly delighted us all, a surprisingly strong and arresting modulatory swerve brought things to a sudden halt, allowing, after a luftpause, a beautifully-poised adagio to cast its spell, courtesy of Anna McGregor’s gorgeous tones. With such playing in mind one readily forgave the clarinettist a dropped note or two in the final phrases of the Allegro coda.
I’ll risk both chauvinism and ungraciousness by remarking that it was a pity we didn’t get to hear Anthony Ritchie’s other “programmed” piece (listed as a “possible” encore, but remaining a “might-have-been”) “Purakaunui at Dawn”. I think I would have preferred it to the somewhat bland Lindström work. Still, the two major quintets were the thing – and local audiences obviously owe Anna McGregor a debt of gratitude for hitting upon a way of getting around the troubles which befell the original tour arrangements, and enabling us to experience the work of such a fine group of musicians.