Compared to the other instruments of the standard orchestra, the clarinet, in its modern state, is a relative newborn. During the 18th century, its popularity and inclusion by composers greatly increased so that many of the greatest chamber music compositions were written with the clarinet as a major voice. The Antares Piano-Clarinet Quartet is a unique ensemble whose lineup of violin, cello, piano and clarinet, and all permutations, give it an extraordinary scope of great repertoire. The Chamber Arts Society of Durham, in association with Duke Performances, presented a remarkable weekend residence of Antares that included a master class and two full-length recitals.

The personnel of Antares is Garrick Zoeter, clarinet, Jesse Mills, violin, Rebecca Patterson, cello, and Eric Huebner, piano, and after hearing them play for close to four hours I was unable to discern any significant shortcomings or opportunity for negative comments either individually or as an ensemble. 

The Friday concert at the Nelson Music Room on Duke University’s east campus was a mixture of the old, new and a world premiere. The program order was changed so that Brahms’ Clarinet Trio was played as the final work, not the first. This, of course, is in keeping with the unwritten rule that if you are going to program “difficult” new works, then put those first and save the “reward” of the comfortable old sweater music at the end. The evening began with the return of Caroline Mallonee, who holds a Ph.D. from Duke, for the world premiere of her new work for piano trio. This was so new that it was still called “New Work (2010)” on the program, but it was announced that the new baby was now named “Shadow Rings.” Ms. Mallonee introduced the work and spoke a bit about the meaning of the title. This had some wonderfully inventive effects, especially at the beginning when the combination of harmonics on the cello and violin, plus some intrusion into the body of the piano, produced a faint but very clear bell-like tone that is still a mystery as to how and why it was produced.

The next work, Tashi Quartet, by Peter Lieberson, presents the connection with Antares in that it was written for the Tashi Quartet who had the same configuration of Antares and who also made a landmark recording and helped re-awaken interest in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time which would be played the following evening. This is a very substantial five-movement work, written primarily in the 12-tone system, but definitely without the pain and tears of the Viennese 12-tone proponents Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. There are long sections which are direct “borrowings” (hommages?) to Stravinsky and his flirtation with the 12-tone system. But, there are also exceptional sections where Lieberson displays the rare ability to incorporate real jazz into a classical setting. Antares played with great energy and showed that they may have surpassed the Tashi Quartet, their ancestor of this type ensemble.

Brahms unique combination of clarinet, cello and piano is a stroke of genius and the sonorities of this mixture add even more credence to the “autumnal” label of this work written near the end of his life. Like in his heavenly B-major piano trio, the cello begins the Clarinet Trio with a deeply expressive theme that cellist Patterson played with a full, rich tone and lovely phrasing. Throughout the work, and the performance here, there is a dark, somber tone that flirts with but does not become maudlin and self-pitying. The three players matched emotions and phrasing so compellingly that at times it felt as if this was a personal and intimate conversation and we were eavesdroppers. This was a truly moving experience, supported by consummate musical technique

With all due respect to composers Mallonee and Lieberson, the Saturday evening program was one which you look at and simply say “wow,” thus the packed house for the second concert. Ravel, Bartók, Messiaen – not a bad lineup, each a different orchestration, each quite distinct in character from one another, and all certified masterpieces of twentieth-century chamber music.

Next to his wildly popular string quartet, Ravel’s only piano trio is “Frenchness” and impressionism at its finest. The use of many Basque themes and rhythms is indicative of the fascination and melding of cultures of that region of France near the border with Spain. The playing of this evocative work requires a combination of great delicacy and aggressiveness which Antares (minus clarinetist Zoeter) ably demonstrated. Of particular beauty and expressiveness is the passacaglia where pianist Huebner played the brooding, low-register theme that is the foundation for the remainder of this third movement.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more striking contrast to the Ravel trio than Contrasts by Bartók. We have moved from the ethereal, tell-me-what-you’re-feeling, moodiness of the French, to the earthbound, extroverted, meat-and–potatoes exuberance of central/eastern European folk music. Not counting duos, we have arrived at the final permutation possible for Antares: clarinet, violin and piano. Violinist Mills brought on stage a second violin, tuned dramatically differently than the G-D-A-E norm that would be used for just a few measures at the start of the third movement. Contrasts was written as a commission by the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, at the suggestion of violinist Joszef Szigeti. The entire work is practically a catalog of great, virtuoso “licks” for both the violinist and clarinetist (no offense Mr. Huebner) and is a world away from a traditional western European work. All we needed was a campfire, some wine and beautiful dancing women to make the picture complete.  

We now come to the work that served as the impetus for the creation of Antares and their unique instrumentation: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) by French composer Olivier Messiaen. The folklore surrounding the composition of this work and its first performance in 1941 in a German concentration camp is well known. Messiaen was a deeply religious Catholic and this quartet reflects his beliefs, as indicated by his own description of the work and his program notes for each of the eight movements. In addition to the unparalleled and spiritual beauty, this work is a perfect vehicle for Antares, or any other ensemble that plays this, in that nearly every combination of instrumentation is present. I was mesmerized by clarinetist Zoeter’s transcendent unaccompanied solo in the third movement (“Abyss of the birds”). His ability to play a tone and make it speak at a nearly inaudible level and very slowly climb to an instrument-rattling scream is practically miraculous. There are two movements called a Louange (praise or eulogy) featuring the cello and in the final movement the violin. The cello louange should be mandated for every cellist to develop beautiful tone with long, steady bowings with relatively easy left-hand technique. The full ensemble often plays complex, jagged, and asymmetrical rhythms in unison and they became the definition of synchronicity. Much of Messiaen’s harmonies reside in a unique netherworld that defies description and pianist Huebner was particularly effective in portraying its mystical qualities.

If music is meant to transport you from the mundane of the present to a higher plane of understanding and feeling, then Messiaen’s masterpiece is the perfect vehicle – in the hands of the right players. Antares is as good as it gets in any of the performances of this work that I have heard. We are all musically richer for having had the weekend with Antares and look forward to their return.