James Campbell & New Zealand String Quartet by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, November 25, Walter Hall, Toronto

James Campbell says he has played the Mozart Quintet in A Major for clarinet and strings, K.581 about 350 times, and each time he finds something new in it. The Quintet has been a living presence with me for more than 50 years, and after Campbell’s collaboration with the New Zealand String Quartet, I have no hope of hearing it played better.

The concert began with Campbell and pianist Paul Stewart’s performance of Sonata No.1 in F Minor for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms.The duo match each other in gentleness of tone during harmonic passages and especially in unison passages that occur frequently at the end of phrases in the opening “Allegro appassionata.” The music, composed during the final few years of Brahms’ life, sings deeply of love discovered and love lost in the passage of time, and laments that the best of times are behind us.

The slowly flowing “Andantino” has the wistful langour of Jean Renoir films and Impressionist paintings of lovers boating. The inner parts of the “Allegretto grazioso” and the finalVivace” express  more gaiety in the sparkling piano without abandoning the deepening shade of the clarinet’s chalumeau register, both musicians keeping meticulous time at every turn.

Reflections on the endurance of love for what has passed was given a different expression in the world premiére performance of  Phil Nimmons’ composition “Time Revisited” for clarinet and piano. A clarinetist himself, Nimmons, at 87, is considered the ‘Dean of Canadian Jazz’. He wrote this piece as a memorial to his late wife and their 52-year marriage. Nimmons explained that the melodic content was developed in musical intervals of 2,5, and 7, based on important dates in the marriage.

“Time Revisited” opens with a dramatic reference to the reality of sudden loss: choppy piano chords and a shrill, talking clarinet repeat ostinato phrases that tail off softly into suspended silences. A rhapsodic feeling develops in long-breathed lines that wander slowly into soft dark music of an anguished clarinet in dialogue with a lonely piano. Later, jazzy discords develop a sad and blue mood punctuated by controlled shrieks that fade “into memory and quiet acceptance.” When the music stopped, a sense of dignity remained in the hall.

After intermission, we had another ‘world premiére’ of backward-looking homage. Timothy Corliss’ Raven and the First Men honours Bill Reid’s sculpture of the same title (which appears on the back of the Canadian 20 dollar bill). This five-part composition is very fine work—warm and accessible, variously textured in keening, quivering, squalling, droney sonics punctuated by pizzicatos and wonderful glissandos that surge in wave after wave of music to an exciting climax. Standing ovation for this work commissioned by the WMCT. The music is beautifully synched to a film in which the camera pans slowly over the golden-toned textures and furrows carved into the wood of Bill Reid’s sculpture.

The rest is Mozart. Even before Campbell’s clarinet entered the moderately paced “Allegro” with its liquid flights of skylarking the first of three themes, Rolf Gyelsten’s resonant cello and his wide-awake demeanour caught my attention and held it through all four movements. The exquisite Larghetto—the heart of this achingly tender piece—begins as an aria for the mellow clarinet shadowed by the cello singing harmony. In the second section, Helène Pohl’s soothing first violin joins in a duet that enlivens the clarinet into a delicate rapture, while the muted strings spread an irridescent glow.

Gillian Ansel’s viola leads the “Oranges and Lemons” theme that opens the “Scherzo” bringing the mood to earth with glittering dance rhythms, and in the secondTrio” the clarinet solos a humorous aria over the strings. The final “Vivace” is a five-part variation that sounds like a chamber opera— gay in the first variation led by the two violins, bouncy in the second, mournful in the third, with a virtuosic clarinet cadenza in the fourth, and a fifth that goes teasingly slow to prepare the surprise of the climax.

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