Sitting in the editor’s chair at Bachtrack can be a sobering experience. One minute you’re editing a review of the Vienna Philharmonic playing to an eye-poppingly packed hall in Tokyo or receiving press photos of a fully staged Rusalka in Madrid, the next you’re cancelling review assignments as another concert bites the dust or watching one of the world’s great orchestras reduced to a string quartet playing behind closed doors and wearing face masks.

New York Philharmonic String Quartet © 92Y
New York Philharmonic String Quartet
© 92Y

Many venues have been forced into hibernation, causing orchestras to adapt to maintain contact with their audiences. Recording behind closed doors is a fact of life for many, a force-fed diet of Siegfried Idylls and other small scale works. The New York Philharmonic has slimmed right down to chamber ensemble configurations and ventured beyond Lincoln Center. There was a spooky Halloween programme in the candlelit Cathedral of St John the Divine and last night saw five of its players perform Felix Mendelssohn and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in the 92nd Street Y Kaufmann Concert Hall

Presentation was simple, with no introductory fluff or programme notes, the camera trained on the stage between works as chairs and music stands were shifted. On one hand, this was frustrating – a rarity such as Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet deserves a few words – but on the other, perhaps the music should be allowed to speak for itself. 

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 3 in D major, Op.44 no.1, was given a warmly persuasive performance. Its outer movements bristled with joy, particularly the rocketing figures in the first violin (Yulia Ziskel). The second movement, a Minuet in name, glided smoothly but rather too sedately across the dance floor but the Andante was reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s lyrical Songs without Words in its cantabile lilt. Tight ensemble drove home the exuberant nature of the finale. 

Anthony McGill © 92Y
Anthony McGill
© 92Y

Lovely as the Mendelssohn quartet was, it’s a pity that the Coleridge-Taylor wasn’t paired with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet as originally scheduled as there are obvious links. Charles Villiers Stanford regarded Coleridge-Taylor as his most brilliant student at the Royal College of Music – remember that Stanford also taught the likes of Bliss, Bridge, Holst and Vaughan Williams. It was after a student performance of Brahms’ quintet that Stanford declared that nobody would be able to compose another clarinet quintet that did not demonstrate Brahms’ influence. Coleridge-Taylor took this as a challenge and, poring over the 1895 result, Stanford exclaimed, “You’ve done it, me boy!” Although far from the autumnal maturity of Brahms, it does echo a composer both he and Brahms revered: Dvořák.

Anthony McGill is an exceptionally fine clarinettist and he and the NY Phil string principals gave a persuasive performance. There was welcome thrust in the Allegro energico declamations in the first movement, contrasted with the sweet string-led second subject. McGill spun out the rhapsodic quality of the slow movement gorgeously, like cosy storytelling around the fire, before the restless, off-beat Scherzo, alternating between 3/4 and 9/8. Its lyrical interlude, with its nostalgic clarinet line against pizzicato cello, sounded as if it could have been composed by Dvořák himself. The upbeat, dance-like finale was briefly interrupted with memories from the Larghetto before the Vivace coda brought things to a joyous close to banish the corona blues.

This performance was reviewed from the 92Y video stream