Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sublime Mozart and Brahms End Mount Wilson Season

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Virginie d'Avezac, Henry Gronnier, Cécilia Tsan, Pierre Génisson.


Clarinet Quintets: Mount Wilson Observatory

I suppose one could be hyper-picky and say that opting for the Mozart and the Brahms to fill the clarinet quintet recital that brought Mount Wilson Observatory’s third season of Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” to a close was to choose the most obvious in the genre—the two lushest and lowest-hanging fruit. After all, there are plenty of other clarinet quintets, some of them extremely fine—those by Weber and Bliss, for example, to look no further.

But then, why not go for the “best and brightest”? Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581 and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115 are masterpieces of sublimity that resist being easily pigeon-holed, and the performances by the series Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan (cello) and her fellow-French colleagues Pierre Génisson (clarinet), Ambroise Aubrun and Henry Gronnier (violins), and Virginie d’Avezac (viola) were of such insight as to render reductionist labels like “autumnal” or “valedictory” entirely inadequate.

Sometimes the very start of a performance clearly indicates what is to come. So it was with the Mozart. The four strings (with M. Gronnier as 1st violin and M. Aubrun as 2nd) introduced the principal subject with arresting tenderness and unanimity—their tempo on the steady side but well within the bounds of the marked Allegro, given the note-values—and then M. Génisson’s clarinet bubbled up from, and tumbled lightly back into, their texture with seemingly effortless breath control and a perfect matching of the piano dynamic that they had scrupulously observed.

When they came to the exposition repeat (yes, it was there!), the transition was beautifully handled, with a strong sense of finality in the clarinet’s downward plunge, the final three chords well spaced, and the quarter note rest generously observed before the return—which was a vital touch bolder in its expression, as if something had been learned by experience.

Posthumous portrait of Mozart
by Barbara Krafft.
The Larghetto had a nocturnal gravity, from M. Génisson’s initial perfect arch of melody over muted string oscillations that sounded more like a susurration of nature than something man-made, while in the Scherzo, his lead-in to the repeat of Trio II had a wonderfully teasing, hesitant quality, in contrast to the artless directness with which it had been played first time around. Equally imaginative was the strings’ softer revisiting, in their repeat, of Trio I, where the clarinet is silent.

As for the finale, after an impudently buoyant statement of the main theme, the first four variations were variously vigorous, poignant (Ms. d’Avezac’s viola having its—albeit clouded—moment in the sun in Variation 3), and burblingly cheerful, unfolding with airborne spontaneity and a seeming insouciance that masked what must have been meticulous preparation; the ensuing Adagio had all the requisite “in memory of a summer day” feel, but it did not overbalance into a nostalgic wallow as sometimes happens, so that Mozart's final dance to the finish-line didn't feel glib or incongruous.

Splendid though this performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet was, however, the group’s account of the Brahms was arguably even finer. One now sadly departed authority on the composer—the Scot Malcolm MacDonald in his life-and-works volume—expressed some reservations about Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet on account of how a certain lack of textural contrast can easily enable performances to fall into an “over-indulged pathos, dangerously near to sentimentality.” I wish he could have heard this performance. 

Particularly in the first movement, those textures seemed anything but homogeneous, the mood passionately assertive rather than benign. Instrumental colors were boldly delineated, with M. Aubrun, now in the 1st violin seat, seizing the opportunity to make the expressive most of his assumption of Brahms’ memorably sinuous melodic line. Later in the exposition, M. Génisson made something very special of the dolce moment when the clarinet plays isolated dotted notes against a rocking motion in the strings—in his hands like tiny, discrete dabs of color on a pointillist canvas.

Following the exposition repeat (which as with the Mozart was welcome, of course, but completely blew away any chance of these two works squeezing within the nominal hour’s duration for the recital), the development was stormy, and then the recapitulation positively torrential, Brahms in 1891—and within a half-dozen years of the end of his life—not so much engaged in nostalgic reflection as “raging against the dying of the light.” 

Triplex Portrait of Brahms in 1889, two years before he composed the Clarinet Quintet.

The opening span of the Adagio was rapturously beautiful, with M. Génisson’s clarinet keening softly over the muted dolce strings, and when at the start of the second, Più lento, section, he broke away into its elaborate roulades above the strings now imitative, now musing, he didn't over-dramatize the moment, instead allowing the tension to cumulate until his climactic moment sounded like a scream of pain, twisting and turning in the night.

The brief Andantino that Brahms substitutes for the more usual scherzo had a rather business-like air, with the Presto non assai that does duty as a trio (though with no recap of the opening) seething busily along. Then the Con moto finale, comprising a theme, five extensive variations, and a coda, was of such range and coherent power that nothing less than the last movement of the Fourth Symphony came to mind. The “all passion spent” coda, with its mournful recalling of the first movement’s main theme, embodied heart-rending resignation without a scrap of excess sentimentality.

In both works, the group played with a unanimity that sounded as if they had many years of collaborative chamber music performance behind them, rather than being brought together just for this occasion. It’s probably invidious to single anyone out, but on this concert’s evidence, M. Génisson is surely one of the finest clarinetists on the planet. His many passages of rapid articulation and leaps in both works had unfailing smoothness and clarity, more like a natural force than the painstaking work of fingers and embouchure, and evinced total control, whether projecting his tone with supernal intensity or as a beneficent murmur.

I doubt that better performances, particularly of the Brahms, could be heard in any recital hall in the world, however prestigious—not in Vienna, or London, or New York—and here they were enhanced, of course, by the unique combination of plangent grandeur and inner clarity afforded by the 100-inch telescope Dome’s acoustic. As Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne remarked before the start, they were continuing to experiment with layout. Instead of having the performers against the inner edge of the viewing platform as previously, with the audience faced towards the telescope in the center, this time positions were reversed, with the group on a platform against the Dome wall. To me, there wasn’t much in it soundwise, though maybe this arrangement allows for a few more audience seats.

Since the Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” began in 2017, Cécilia Tsan as Artistic Director has repeatedly set herself high bars to beat in terms of sheer performance quality, and this recital arguably was the most formidable hurdle yet for future events to surpass. We wait with great anticipation to see what her 2020 season brings. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 6 October 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Todd Mason; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Brahms: 19thcentury photography.

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