Rebecca Clarke “à la française”!


Just as we launch our new Rebecca Clarke discography, there comes Silhouettes, a gorgeous new release from Channel Classics that situates Clarke’s Viola Sonata (1919) right where it belongs—in close relationship with the cosmopolitan European modernism centered in Paris in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when Maurice Ravel was still a hot new thing out near the cutting edge, and Clarke was in a position not only to play much of his chamber music before the ink on it was quite dry, but to play some of it under his own wayward baton, and to read his Tarot—to alarming effect—at the after-concert party.

For Dana Zemtsov, the violist on Silhouettes, which releases today worldwide, the Sonata breathes a French atmosphere—“It has this French smell,” she says, in a charming “making of” video—and in the hands of Zemtsov and pianist Anna Fedorova, it most assuredly does, sitting comfortably, as if at home, at the head of a substantial, richly varied program of French and French-influenced works by Debussy, Milhaud, Enescu, and Arne Werkman.

For all the attempts to shoehorn Clarke into the “English Musical Renaissance,” she never quite fit there. In fact, she was in thrall to Debussy, and she worshipped Pelléas—early in her career as a jobbing violist, she blew two week’s rent on a copy of the vocal score, then hot off the presses, as a birthday present to herself. The inspiration showed plainly in her own work, as most of the Sonata’s earliest critics saw at once: “Its style is the happiest combination of British and French,” one rejoiced, while another was blown away by the opening of the final movement, where Clarke showed “her greatest genius, for here the music is mystical and macabre, in places as poignant, as moving as anything heard in the death chamber of Mélisande.” And then there’s the famous story of the 1919 Coolidge competition, where the Sonata—entered anonymously, as required—deadlocked for the prize, and when the seals were broken, the judges were astounded to learn that the piece that they thought to be “the work of a poet,” whom several of them assumed was Maurice Ravel, was not only by a woman, but by an Englishwoman at that.

Zemtsov and Fedorova’s performance of the Sonata is outstanding—by turns sensitive, passionate, and dry-eyed, as needed—with just the right touch of portamento in the lyrical passages, and real wit in the scherzo. The contrapuntal equality of the two instruments has rarely been brought out so beautifully. And you will never again be able to hear Clarke’s music without noticing at once the debt she owed to Debussy’s Faune, especially to that little falling-fourth pattern at rehearsal no. 4, which lurks in so many of Clarke’s lyrical second subjects. Even in a field awash in fine recordings, Silhouettes is truly special.

Silhouettes (Dana Zemtsov, viola / Anna Fedorova, piano). Includes Rebecca Clarke, Sonata for Viola and Piano; Debussy, La plus que lente, Clair de lune, Beau soir; Werkman, Suite for Viola and Piano; Milhaud, Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, Op. 240; Enescu, Concert Piece for Viola and Piano. Channel Classics CD CCS 42320, 2020.


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