Borromeo Quartet & Richard Stoltzman

By Scott MacClelland

CLARINETIST RICHARD STOLTZMAN is no stranger to Carmel. Now 76, he returned to perform for Chamber Music Monterey Bay with the Borromeo String Quartet, together attracting a large audience at Sunset Center on Saturday. Borromeo and Stoltzman last appeared here in January, 2010. He read his part from traditional score; they read theirs on iPads and turned pages with a foot pedal. (Borromeo, named after the wealthy Italian family whose son Carlo, a 16th century counter-reformation cardinal and inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church, is well known locally for the Carmel mission that bears his name.)

At 100 minutes total performing time, this was an unusually generous program. (These days, classical concerts typically offer 60 to 70 minutes total.) Two works for string quartet alone included the well-known Quartet in G Minor by Debussy—a knockout reading indeed!—and two movements from Etudes and Lullabies by American composer Sebastian Currier. With Stoltzman on board, they performed the quintet by Jean Françaix (a local premiere I believe) and the famous and well-loved quintet by Mozart.

With the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets as looming masterpieces, Françaix knew he had to go for gold. As a Frenchman, however, he was not about to be intimidated; he composed his in 1977 as a boldly ambitious work in four movements lasting nearly half an hour. Moreover, he applied his French sensibilité that maximizes clarity laced with Gallic musical wit. That wit usually shows up in the quicker bits and movements as it did when the languid opening adagio gave way to a snarky clarinet solo that led to the cheeky allegro, à la Erik Satie and his disciples, Poulenc, Milhaud et al. The second movement, scherzando, was playful, syncopated and with much string pizzicato. The brief third movement, grave, is nothing more or less than a tender lullaby, while the rondo finale gives expanded phrasing to the clarinet against quicker chatter on the strings. It also gave the clarinet generous opportunities to go its own way, right up to and including a solo cadenza and a ripe red raspberry—that you won’t hear from other players—just before the end.

The Debussy quartet was played with such single-minded brilliance and élan that one might have thought the iPad technology was a contributing factor. Beforehand, violinist Nicholas Kitchen explained that Debussy had in mind the great Belgian violinist/composer Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858-1931), the “tsar” of the violin as Nathan Milstein described him. Ysaÿe indeed inspired virtuoso works by others of his contemporary composers.

Kitchen also told an amusing story about working with Currier, specifically as it applied to the Etude No. 6 “Velocities,” an eerie high-speed scurry composed (along with its other movements) in 2017 for Borromeo. Let’s just say that if the iPad made the quartet’s work easier, it wasn’t by much. The slow, tremulous, brittle Lullaby No. 2 “Dreaming” made you realize how hyperventilated “Velocities” was.

At last came the Mozart. Like the Françaix, the texture makes clear how different the personality of the clarinet is to the string quartet. Even with fine ensemble playing, Stoltzman asserted himself at every opportunity right from the start. The heart and soul of the piece is the melting second movement Larghetto, a tender seduction that, along with several other late Mozart masterpieces proves that that great classicist was at heart a romantic. For another thing, he shows himself to be no slave to convention; in the first of the two trios (in the minuet) he gives the clarinet nothing to do, but then chooses to remember it in the second trio. For the jovial finale, the expected rondo was in this case replaced by a theme and five variations, plus a coda which itself sounds largely like another variation.

Chamber music you say? It doesn’t get better than this.