A few years ago, when Anna McGregor was a student at the University of Auckland, she invariably stood out in any concert, whether dispensing circus-like jollity on bass clarinet in a David Hamilton choral piece or delivering radiant clarinet solos by Stockhausen and Gillian Whitehead.
After post-graduate studies in Sweden, McGregor has remained in that country, returning home in 2014 to tour with the four string players of her Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet.
Auckland central slipped off a seven-venue itinerary that ran from Cromwell to Warkworth, but an outstanding Atoll CD, Fjarran, now presents the two major New Zealand compositions featured in those concerts.
Ross Harris' Fjarran bursts into bloom from just one evanescent phrase in Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, which was also on the touring playlist two years ago.
Harris defines his Swedish title as "something far away, elusive, to be understood only in fragments", perfectly capturing its captivating 21 minutes. A wistful romantic spirit is afoot here, a sense of yearning that the musicians catch in pliant, arching phrases; elsewhere, the highly charged give-and-take between the five players is the mark of collegial chamber music at its best.
The sheer detail of this mercurial music might look daunting on paper, yet Harris maintains a sense of flow that reminds me of gently floating clouds, allowing new perspectives of light and shade below.
Anthony Ritchie's 2006 Clarinet Quintet, also included in some of the 2014 concerts, is more robust in style. Some listeners will hear echoes of music that has gone before, yet the sustained tension of this writing is palpable, pitching McGregor as very much the protagonist in movements titled Bright, Intense, and Uneasy.
A shorter 2014 piece by Ritchie, Purakaunui at Dawn, commissioned for the tour, is an effectively atmospheric idyll, in which the ghost of Bela Bartok might be heard, tip-toeing along the shoreline.
Unlike some recent releases which feature university logos, and are fit only for propping up academic CVs, this first-rate album, beautifully produced by Wayne Laird, fully justifies the sponsorship of the University of Otago, where Ritchie is on the staff.
Fjarran, Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet
Atoll through Ode Records
Verdict: Ace Swedish ensemble + top-class Kiwi music = outstanding release.