Ninety-five years ago this evening, Rebecca Clarke gave a concert of her own works at London’s Wigmore Hall. As we explain in a new feature in our Gallery, this was at once a bold stroke, a big deal, and one of the defining moments in Clarke’s seven-decades-long career. To paraphrase an offhand remark she made about her old friend Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, “We think it did rather well for her.”
Nearly a century later—quite by happenstance, but almost to the day—Wigmore Hall will beam the pillars of Clarke’s program out to the world, as part of their indispensable Live Stream series. On October 29, the Gould Piano Trio steps in for the original all-star team (Adila Fachiri, May Mukle, and Myra Hess) in a program that comprises the trios of Clarke and Ravel, and the Mozart G major, K. 564. The Sonata follows on December 8, with Natalie Clein and Cédric Pescia performing Clarke’s alternate version for cello. Concerts in this series are free to view online for 30 days, but donations are welcome.
Clein’s recording of the Sonata has been widely praised—Gramophone noted “a tonal palette that ranges from thick charcoal-black to muted pastels, beautifully controlled and shaped in the service of Clarke’s ardent musical narrative”—and if the Goulds’ recording of the Trio, due out on October 30, is even a patch on their borderline-sublime survey of Stanford’s trios (here, here, and here—music that still feels startlingly original, and way more relevant to Clarke’s work than you might think), it will be very special indeed.
Nearly eighty years after its composition, and eighteen years after publication, Clarke’s Binnorie: A Ballad has just received what I believe to be its first broadcast performance, and what is certainly its first recorded performance in any medium available to the general public, and it is stunning—the piece as well as the performance. I won’t tell you any more, apart from the basic facts: the performers are Lorna Anderson, soprano, and Malcolm Martineau, piano, and you cannot do better than that; the production is by BBC Radio 3; and Binnorie comes just after the 35:00 mark, as the grand climax of a magnificent program.
The text, as Clarke set it, is here. The piece is more than two Liebestods long, and at least five times as intense, so you will need a minimum of sixteen minutes without interruption: close the door, shush your companions, turn off your devices, and allow ample time to recover, even after the presenter realizes that she’s still got a radio-show to finish and breaks her long, shocked silence. Also be prepared to abandon any illusion that you may still be harboring, to the effect that Rebecca Clarke was in any way ambivalent about asserting or expressing herself. This is surely the masterpiece among Clarke’s vocal works, and fully the equal of any of her larger instrumental works, and she does not hold back.
The program is available through November 13, 2020, and we’re hondling the BBC to perpetuate it. In the meantime, on October 27, you get another crack at Binnorie in an entirely different context, in Heather Gallagher’s video performance on Sparrow Live (details here). Either way, it’s taken all these years for this great piece to find its feet, and now that it has, don’t postpone…. well, joy isn’t the right word, but whatever it is, don’t wait.
Rebecca Clarke’s Two Movements for String Quartet seem to deepen and grow in stature with every hearing—and they’re getting lots of hearings these days, both in concert and on disc. Of the latter, Quatuor Sine Qua Non‘s performance, in an album entitled 4 for 4, just released by the Paris-based independent label Skarbo, is arguably the best ever. Before describing it, however, I need to repeat a story that Clarke told about the first time she met Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1909:
“I was playing the first performance of his early String Quartet in g minor, and he came to hear us rehearse…. It was my very first concert engagement and I was awfully nervous. What with that, and what with the Quartet being in manuscript, I played a horrible wrong note, a real howler, in one of those fine viola solos. You can imagine how I felt. Of course, I apologized abjectly, and what do you think he said? He said, ‘But you know, I’m not sure but that I don’t rather like it. Do try and remember what you did!’ He was just being kind, of course, but it made me feel a lot better, just as he meant it to.”
This is by way of saying that I hope the Quatuor Sine Qua Non and the nice folks at Skarbo will be equally kind to me for a howler I committed nearly twenty years ago, in the published edition of the Two Pieces, where I proofread measure 6 of the Adagio with my eyes instead of my brain, and passed over several A-flats and an E-flat where the harmonic sense—and the manuscript parts—plainly require A-naturals and E-natural. This set up a fabulously dissonant (if totally wrong) chord on beat 2, reading F-sharp/C/E-flat/E-natural. Previous recordings have tacitly corrected this passage, but Quatuor Sine Qua Non embraces it forthrightly, and you know, I rather like it—it’s an arresting sound, all by itself, and it balances a comparable crunch (B/E-flat/F/F) near the end of the piece, at measure 111, that is indisputably correct. In any case, the quartet plays it beautifully, in a performance that underscores how bracingly modern the piece still feels, ninety-five years after its composition. (And now that they’ve inadvertently brought it to my attention, I shall be donning sackcloth and ashes, and alerting the publisher straightway!)
You don’t have time to hear how wonderful this performance is. Everything is in its place, and in proper relationship to what surrounds it, but there is nothing careful or fussy about it. If anything, the players’ exact readings only seem to deepen the sense of meaning and emotional depth: their exquisitely-calibrated “a tempo ma poco meno mosso” at measure 79 of Comodo e amabile, for example, transforms everything that follows into something rich and strange, while their commitment to Clarke’s sometimes counterintuitive dynamic-markings brings out the Adagio‘s underlying disquiet, turning the frequent ostinati into soft, increasingly urgent drumstrokes. For all their precise observance, there’s no lack of passion, with touches of portamento rarely heard in this music that nevertheless seem just right.
The rest of the program is on the same exalted plane, and every piece is a winner. Germaine Tailleferre generally suffers benign neglect as Les Six‘s surprisingly chic kid sister, but her Quatuor à cordes will make you sit up and take notice. Florentine Mulsant’s work may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me, but I suspect that her Quartet, Op. 47, will change all that. And Amy Beach’s Quartet for Strings is some kind of blinding masterpiece—I’ve played it five times already, and I’m still trying to figure it out, lost in its magnificent improbability. The repertoire is so compelling on its own terms that you might miss the album-title’s intended significance—take all the time you need—and in any case the whole program is beautifully played, and just as beautifully recorded.
The disc is available here and here, and you can get both disc and downloads here. While you’re at it, check out the entire Skarbo catalogue, which is fascinating, not least for the chance it offers to get to know the works of Aubert Lemeland, a composer who was born nearly fifty years after Clarke, but shared her fate in the post-World War II triumph of academic serialism.
4 for 4 (Quatuor Sine Qua Non: Sara Chenal and Virginie Turban, violins; Catherine Demonchy, viola; and Claire-Lise Démettre, cello). Includes Rebecca Clarke, Adagio and Comodo e amabile for string quartet; Tailleferre, Quatuor à cordes; Beach, Quartet for strings; and Mulsant, Quatuor à cordes № 3, Op. 47. Skarbo CD DSK4182-DDD, 2020.
A cascade of news about upcoming concerts and recordings brings this late-breaking bulletin about a fascinating online event put together by the Royal College of Music, Rebecca Clarke’s alma mater, featuring songs by three of the College’s greatest composition-teachers—Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and Mark-Anthony Turnage—paired with works by three of their most interesting students: Clarke, Madeleine Dring, and Charlotte Bray, respectively.
The concert airs on October 5, 2020, at 7:00 p.m. British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent), on the College’s YouTube and Facebook pages, where it will remain available for replay on an open-ended basis.
The RCM’s entire autumn season is free to watch online, but the College “welcomes gifts of every size to its Scholarships Fund, through which talented young musicians can access world-class education, regardless of their financial means”—just as Clarke did, after her capricious father yanked her tuition, back in 1909. What with COVID-19, any amount helps. Go here to contribute, and tell them Rebecca Clarke sent you.