The great instrumentalists transcend the medium. In a way, Anthony McGill made the clarinet disappear at his extraordinary Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital Thursday night with pianist Gloria Chien.
It's not that he wasn't able to exploit the character of his instrument. On the contrary. But he played as if none of its inborn difficulties had ever existed. Not a hint of peril surfaced in extremely quiet sustained high notes, nor was there a split second of unease when he nailed a pitch out of nowhere. He was on easy terms with fast runs.
Impressive, yes, that McGill has almost ludicrously fluid command from the depths of his chalumeau, up through the clarion register, and all the way to the altissimo. The transcendent part, however, is what he did with all this skill. McGill is the slyest of manipulators of phrasing.
A word about Chien. At the end of a group of Scriabin pieces transcribed for clarinet and piano, McGill granted her the American Philosophical Society stage alone, in the Nocturne for Left Hand (Op. 9, No. 2). Here, as in her work with McGill, she found a gorgeous array of colors, assigning one personality to those gestures meant to sound like the classic left-hand bass variety, and another to the right. In the other Scriabin works, and in fact, for the entire recital, McGill and Chien maintained a lockstep precision and unity with each other that approached clairvoyance.
McGill, a Curtis Institute graduate who is now a principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, could not have assembled a more satisfying program: Debussy, Scriabin, Messiaen, and Poulenc, and then Schumann, Berg, and Weber. Each spoke well to a different corner of his personality (even if we must admit to being partial to the Franco-Russian group).
McGill's soft-tonguing technique and plush sound further sensualized the warm breezes of Debussy's Première rhapsodie. Echoes of Ravel were heard in the "Abîme des oiseaux" ("Abyss of Birds"), the clarinet-alone movement that formed the core around which Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time. It's brave to perform this movement by itself, music written while the composer was imprisoned in a German World War II camp. At times, McGill was able to make the clarinet sound as if it were echoing within its own walls, a rather poignant connotation.
Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata was an antidote of lightness, though to consider only its mirth would be a slight. This late work is a distillation of his output; it tinkers with some of the same harmonic patterns in the Flute Sonata, while shreds of The Story of Babar the Elephant and other works emerge.
The piece covers, in stylish form, a great gamut of human emotions: childlike tenderness, hilarity, and unexpected gashes of deep sorrow. It's only at the end of the second movement that you realize, through McGill's breathing and bending of tone, that what you've heard is the most human of musical feats, the song.