5&1, Part 24: Haunted by the Clarinet

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No instrument exactly mimics the human voice, of course, but the clarinet comes close. A remarkably versatile instrument, it’s capable of producing rich, mellow tones as a result of its precisely turned wooden barrel. But within a hare’s breath, its sound can be transfigured into one of such piercing intensity that a single instrument can effortlessly cut through an entire orchestra, rising high above surrounding instruments in both tone and volume. This is because of the use of a single reed (a strip of vibrating cane attached to the mouthpiece—unlike the two reeds bound together on the oboe, the clarinet’s is fixed against the wood). The performer blows wind over the reed to make the sound, but it demands strong lungs managed by supreme breath control. That is simply to prevent it making ugly squeaks and screeches! To make it truly ‘sing’? Well, that requires incredible skill and experience.

Whenever that gets pulled off, however, in performing one of the greats of the clarinet repertoire, I know of few other musical experiences as intense or overwhelming. This week’s playlist therefore unashamedly gathers several personal favourites in one place! These are often the initial go-tos if I’m in a pit and need to be lifted above the clouds.

1. Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

George Gershwin (1898–1937, American)
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), James Judd (conductor), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

How could we start anywhere else? The most famous clarinet solo in twentieth-century music. From low down in the instrument’s register, it’s meant to slide as smoothly and effortlessly as possible to the top. On a string instrument that would be easy. You just have to slide a finger along the string, without having to worry too much about picking out the individual notes. The string player’s challenge is first and foremost one of intonation—in other words, having such a grasp of tuning and the relative spaces between the notes along the string that you land in the right place every single time. Woodwind players have the opposite problem. Each tone is picked out in advance with individual key combinations along the barrel. So the task here is to create an aural illusion, so that it sounds as close to a slide as possible.

Gershwin embodied the embrace of jazz by classically-trained musicians and his entire output is tinged with the complex rhythms and harmonies learned from the extraordinary phenomenon that is African American music. The clarinet itself embodies that cross-over as well. It sits as appropriately and seamlessly in a Viennese salon as it does in a New York speakeasy (as this playlist will show). Rhapsody in Blue has defined the emblematic sound of Roaring ‘20s New York, originally written for piano and jazz band and then subsequently rescored for full orchestra. Ideas for the piece first came to Gershwin on a train and once the rhapsody gets under way, we can feel the insistent rhythm of wheels on rails. But it is much more than simply that. It is as if the clarinet introduction sweeps us all up into the joyous ride of a lifetime.

2. Allegretto, 1st Movement, Clarinet Sonata in E flat major (Op. 167, 1921)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921, French)
Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Gwynneth Pryor (piano)

Gershwin had been to Paris to study composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger but she turned him down, not because he was beyond hope but because he was beyond needing it. She didn’t want him to lose his unique style. But Paris has had untold influence on music for centuries, and Saint-Saëns was very much its epicentre a generation before.

The clarinet sonata was one of his last works, often grouped with his oboe and bassoon sonatas written at a similar time. From its opening seconds, we’re drawn into a lyrical, daydream-like meander, as if we’ve suddenly remembered some happy memories and we spend a few moments reliving them. Even though this was composed just three years before Gershwin’s masterpiece, this is a world apart, perhaps a last gasp of nineteenth century nostalgia, untouched by the horrors of the First World War. It is in no sense diminished because of that, for Saint-Saëns was a man in his late eighties by this point. But the sonata’s seemingly effortless grace and beauty proves him to have been at the height of his powers even then.

3. Blue Horizon (1944)

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959, American)
Sidney Bechet and His Blue Note Jazzmen

Sidney Bechet was one of the finest jazz clarinettists of all time and this track provides a kind of aural bridge between the first two items in the playlist. Bechet’s sound is evidence of his mastery of technique, with a gorgeously smooth tone and purity, evocative of his native New Orleans. But its gentle groove and big band feel show that we have travelled a long way from the refined salons of Paris.

Nevertheless, he found that France was more accommodating and conducive for an African American musician from the South and so after the Second World War, he settled in Paris, remaining there until his death. This was despite an unfortunate incident during a sojourn in the 1920s in which he was imprisoned for the best part of a year and then deported for accidentally shooting a woman. But that’s a whole other story!

4. Fughetta, V of Five Bagatelles (Op. 23, 1930s)

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956, English)
Emma Johnson (clarinet), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Finzi wrote relatively little chamber music and Five Bagatelles is the closest he came to a sonata for any instrument, but he would go on to compose a much-loved Clarinet Concerto after the Second World War. That was of course written on a far grander scale for full orchestra, whereas this suite is is intimate, ideal for the close-up and personal ambience of a house concert. A bagatelle is an eighteenth century pub-game, in which players compete to get up to nine small balls into holes on a board, and which was later developed into a pin-ball machine. So the word came to mean something fun but insubstantial, a trifle and diversion. Finzi’s pieces convey precisely that, but there is much more to them than that. Apart from the technical demands of playing them, they express a glorious lightness and joie-de-vivre. So, I find that their positive effect on my mood is anything but trifling.

5. Galántai Táncok (‘Dances of Galánta’, 1933)

Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967, Hungarian)
Iván Fischer (conductor), Budapest Festival Orchestra

So this marks a major gear-change. Kodály (pronounced Kō-dye) was a brilliant musician and educator who transformed the way children are taught music the world over. Galánta is now part of Slovakia, but for nearly ten centuries it was a key region of the Kingdom of Hungary and was where Kodály spent much of his childhood.

This piece for full orchestra was composed for a commission from the Budapest Philharmonic Society and makes use of folk tunes and gypsy music from the region. As such it is not specifically a piece for clarinet, but it is an important soloist early on, setting the mood and harking back to the gypsy and klezmer bands her remembered from his youth. This illustrates well the clarinet’s ability to pierce through a wall of sound and make itself stand out. Glorious.

Clarinet Quintet in B minor (Op. 115, 1891)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, German)
Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet), Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Christoph Koncz (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola) & Stephan Koncz (cello)

Last but by no means least is one of the all-time greats in any musical form.

Brahms’ clarinet quintet is a piece I have returned to again and again and again and it never fails to grab one with its searing beauty and pathos. Brahms had decided to retire formally from composition in 1890 (at 57), feeling he had said everything he could say. However, it was after hearing the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld that he was inspired to take up his pen again and he would write several compositions for clarinet as a result.

Few composers had written clarinet quintets (in other words clarinet added to the standard string quartet) but Mozart’s is the most famous and beloved. It was a toss-up as to whose to include here because Mozart’s is stunning and one of his masterpieces of masterpieces. But in the end, I couldn’t bear to part with Brahms’! Since it is inspired and indeed based on Mozart’s, one could even say we therefore get two for the price of one. But that’s unfair. So go and dig that one out at some point.

There are four movements:

  1. Allegro in B minor (fast)
  2. Adagio in B (slow)
  3. Andantino in D (a little more than walking pace)
  4. Con moto in B minor (with pace)

There is life and vigour to the piece, but it is hard to avoid the sense of a man writing in his later years and reflecting on the many twists and turns of his life. In just over half and hour of music, the quintet shows off the extraordinary range of the instrument, and provides as great a tribute to the wonders of the clarinet as it’s possible to hear.

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.


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