Anthony McGill and Gloria Chien on demand now through Nov 28

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Anthony McGill, clarinet
Gloria Chien, piano

Brahms: Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2
Brahms: Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1
Jessie Montgomery: Peace (2020)
Weber: Grand Duo Concertant, Op. 48

Anthony McGill is one of classical music’s brightest stars. He just won Lincoln Center’s prestigious, $100,000 Avery Fisher Prize, awarded in recognition of musicians who represent the highest level of excellence and whose vision and leadership have expanded the reach of classical music. We’re bringing him straight to your living room from the historic Mechanics Hall in Massachusetts.

In this captivating recital, you’ll enjoy two of Brahms’ late masterpieces — the Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 — and Weber’s famously virtuosic Grand Duo Concertant, as well as a new work entitled Peace by Jessie Montgomery, the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill is one of classical music’s most recognizable and brilliantly multifaceted figures. He serves as the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic — that orchestra’s first African-American principal player — and maintains a dynamic international solo and chamber music career. McGill’s frequent recital partner, Taiwanese-born pianist Gloria Chien, has a diverse musical life as a noted performer, concert presenter and educator.

“Mr. McGill played with his trademark brilliance, penetrating sound and rich character. That the ovation was so enthusiastic was no surprise.” — The New York Times

“[McGill exhibits an] exquisite combination of technical refinement and expressive radiance” – The Baltimore Sun

“[Gloria Chien] appears to excel in everything” — The Boston Globe

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Program and Notes

BRAHMS Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2
BRAHMS Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1
WEBER Grand Duo Concertant, Op. 48

In 1890, at the age of 57, Johannes Brahms announced his retirement from writing music. As he later put it, “I’m really too old. . . I had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old age and could enjoy it in peace.”

As it turned out, life had different plans. The following year, Brahms paid a fateful visit to a small central-German court called Meiningen, where he met a clarinetist named Richard Mühlfeld. Throughout his stay in Meiningen, Brahms found himself captivated by the tone Mühlfeld could create with his clarinet, almost like the sound of a human voice. Soon Brahms was calling Mühlfeld nicknames like “my dear nightingale” and “my prima donna”; it was clear he had found a new muse.

That summer, Brahms returned to his summer home in Austria, where he emerged from his short-lived retirement to create two late masterpieces, his Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio in A Minor. A few years later, he followed these gems up with two additional gifts for Mühlfeld (and clarinetists ever since), the Opus 120 clarinet sonatas. Together, these sonatas represent the first major contribution to the clarinet sonata repertoire, as well as the final chamber music Johannes Brahms would ever compose.

Like many of Brahms’ post-retirement works, the Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major is lyrical and contemplative, with a sense of melancholy that extends between its three movements. The second movement, Allegro, molto appassionato, explores one of Brahms’ most memorable and operatic melodies, given all the more emotional impact due to the sonorous, voice-like tone quality of the clarinet. Never rushing to a new idea, Brahms lingers and savors each moment to its fullest throughout. Even the sonata’s comparatively flashy finale begins with a lengthy, meditative Andante con moto section, but Brahms allows both the clarinetist and pianist a chance to show off in the free-flowing Allegro section that brings it to its conclusion.

The Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, while still introspective in its own way, has a bit more of the verve, angularity, and gravity that epitomized Brahms’ music prior to his retirement. Its four movements contain great variety, from the first movement’s stern opening salvo to the leisurely second movement and the graceful, earnest third. The Vivace finale, on the other hand, is Brahms at his most lighthearted. Echoes of this witty and humorous music can be heard in many clarinet sonatas written by composers in the 20th century, including notably those of Paul Hindemith and Francis Poulenc.

Brahms’ choice of F Minor and E-flat Major as the keys for his sonatas may have been a subtle nod to another composer who played an important role in the history of the clarinet, Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). One of the first composers of the Romantic Era in Germany, Weber shot to fame in 1821 with a major opera called Der Freischütz (The Marksman). Another important moment in his early career, however, came in 1811, when Weber struck a friendship with a Munich clarinetist named Heinrich Baermann.

In many ways, Weber’s connection with Baermann directly parallels Brahms’ later bond with Mühlfeld. The two became fast friends and artistic collaborators from the start. In fact, almost immediately after meeting Baermann, Weber set to work at composing two new concertos for Baermann to perform – one in E-flat Major and the other in F Minor.

When Weber visited Munich in 1815, he once again jumped at the opportunity to write for his clarinet-playing muse, this time embarking on a project to write a sonata for clarinet and piano that he and Baermann could perform together. Once he finished the piece, however, Weber decided that it was not a sonata at all, but rather a more dramatic-sounding Grand Duo Concertant for Clarinet and Piano.

The use of the word “Concertant” in the title suggests that Weber may have viewed this duo as a chamber music equivalent of the orchestral concerto. Although the piano plays the role of the orchestra in this case, both performers have abundant opportunities to display their virtuosity. Weber’s characteristic operatic flair, which would be realized more fully in Der Freichütz, comes through clearly in the opening Allegro con fuoco’s playful, conversational exchanges between clarinet and piano. The Andante second movement takes on a grim, melancholic tone, while the winding passages and trills of the rondo finale, which Weber actually composed first, suggest that Baermann, like Mühlfeld, must have been a truly remarkable clarinetist.

– Ethan Allred