A Mosaic of Music: Stereophile's Clarinet Quintet CD Page 4

A Conversation with Antony Michaelson
I first met Antony Michaelson in the summer of 1978, when he and a friend were manufacturing tube amplifiers under the Michaelson & Austin name. We stayed in touch as M&A folded, as Antony spent a brief period working in the US, and as he founded British audio manufacturer Musical Fidelity. Throughout the years, Antony wore his passion for the clarinet on his sleeve, and, having played chamber music with him several times, it had always been at the back of my mind that someday I would record him playing some of the music we both loved. I spoke with him many months after the Kansas sessions and asked him what it was about the clarinet that had first attracted him.

Antony Michaelson: It was just that I loved the sound. I loved the way the thing looked and I loved the sound it made.

John Atkinson: You started playing the instrument relatively late in life.

Michaelson: Very late. I was 14, but I took to it instantly. However, being a good Jewish boy, when I was 18 I ignored whatever level of talent I had and went into accountancy. This made me utterly ill, and eventually I was sacked. Then I got a business degree, which was a complete waste of time. Then I had six jobs in one and a half years of employment, because I just couldn't settle. But finally I went to music college, where I studied with Keith Puddy and John McCaw.

Atkinson: You're currently studying with Dame Thea King, who has recorded all the major clarinet works for Hyperion Records.

Michaelson: Yes. When I was doing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto record [recorded by Tony Faulkner in DSD and released in 1998 on CD on Antony's Musical Fidelity label, MF018], I heard Thea doing a broadcast of a master class and I really liked her approach. I phoned her up but she was a bit leery; you know, who the hell was I? Nevertheless, she invited me to play for her. She ripped me apart, of course, really ripped me apart, but she did take me on. It was an epiphany. I can't tell you the change it made in my playing. It was huge.

Atkinson: All the years I've known you, you've always been searching for a better clarinet. What instrument did you play at the sessions for Mosaic?

Michaelson: It was a Rossi clarinet. I used to play a type of clarinet called a "pre-war 1010," which is a very English thing. The "1010" refers to the bore of the instrument, and they're not made anymore. Well, there is one chap making them, but they're just not the same as the pre-war instruments. I had some very careful measurements made, and there was a fundamental difference between the newer English-bore clarinets and my pre-war 1010 in terms of the wall thickness. Then I heard of this chap in Chile, Luis Rossi, who makes an English-bore clarinet. I had a long conversation with him. The guy's a genius—apart from making amazing clarinets, he's an amazing clarinetist. I got Rossi to make me a pair of clarinets to my spec, and they were better than my pre-war 1010. And that's what I used on my concerto record.

Atkinson: But that wasn't the clarinet you played on our recording.

Michaelson: No, that was one of the next pair I had made, from extremely old blackwood. Very old ebony. There were also a couple of changes to the tone holes that I wanted to make to improve the intonation.

Atkinson: For the Mozart and Brahms quintets you used a clarinet pitched in A, which plays a semitone, or half a step, lower than the usual B-flat instrument.

Michaelson: Yes, the A instrument produces a much more voluminous sound than the B-flat. The B-flat is much more brilliant and bright.

Atkinson: Many people will probably be surprised to learn how different clarinets can be. There's the bore, the wall thickness, the tapering of the tone holes, the quality of the reeds...before you even start to play a note, it seems there's as much to worry about as there is in a high-end audio system.

Michaelson: The clarinet is a very strange instrument. When you start playing it it's all very, very easy, it all works easily. But once you start playing it properly, I reckon it's getting on to be the hardest orchestral instrument there is to play. And there are more differences in clarinet sound, in my opinion, than there are in many other instruments. English clarinets are one thing, German clarinets are something else again, Viennese are something else again, and Eastern Europe is something else different again. And American clarinets...there are all sorts of weird things going on with the bore—they have "chokes," lumps of wood designed to damp some of the vibrations, the resonances.

Atkinson: I remember the first time I heard the Brahms Quintet—the way the clarinet creeps in with that rising arpeggio at the very beginning raised goosebumps.

Michaelson: The Brahms is an extraordinary work. You've got this incredible richness of texture, and yet the most amazing economy of resource. If you look at the rhythmic and harmonic and melodic elements, there are very, very few. But Brahms marshals them and reuses them and restructures them and turns them upside down and inside out. The more you get to know about what he does...I just can't believe the intellectual achievement of the work. Yet it has this wonderful unity—the way, at the very end of the fourth movement, you've got a wonderful recitative that leads inexorably back to the opening theme of the first movement. In the voicing and the patterns of that last movement, it's so powerful!

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