Clarke’s discography has become almost overwhelming—in quantity, in variety, in imaginative presentation, and in world-wide provenance. In just the past few months, for example, we’ve seen the release of a violin-and-horn version of Two Pieces for Viola and Cello and a saxophone arrangement of the Viola Sonata, both from the US; the fourth recording of Clarke’s dark, difficult, only-just-now-published-after-nearly-a-century Rhapsody, from the UK; and a lovely disc from Slovakia that offers the fifth comprehensive survey of Clarke’s music for viola and piano, comprising the thirtieth (at least) recording of the Sonata in one of its original forms.
The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. It is limited to current recordings of particular interest, and to recordings of historical significance, many of which are available for download or streaming, or are well worth searching out on the resale market. Links are provided where possible. Private and pirated issues are excluded.
At the rate things are going, you can expect additions and updates almost daily. Stay tuned.
Pride of place must go to violist Josef Koďousek and pianist Květa Novotná, and to four visionary artist-producers—Marnie Hall, Michael Ponder, Lynn Joiner, and Teresa Sterne—who sought out Clarke’s works in her final years or shortly after her death, and made revelatory recordings that brought her public profile to a whole new level.
Koďousek and Novotná’s recording of the Sonata (Supraphon 1111 2694 G; 1980), made in Prague only a few months before Clarke’s death, appears to have been the first recording of any of Clarke’s instrumental works, and it is a beauty, with a near-perfect mix of fire and poetry and a command of the piece’s complex rhythmic transitions that has never been equaled, and rarely even approached.
Hall produced the first recording of the Trio (Leonarda LPI 103; 1980) in a riveting performance by Suzanne Ornstein, James Kreger, and Virginia Eskin, and followed it up with Songs of American Composers: Themes of Nature, Drama, and Solitude (Leonarda LPI 120; 1983), a concept-album with Kristine Ciesinski, John Ostendorf, and Shirley Seguin, featuring premiere recordings of “Down by the Salley Gardens,” “June Twilight,” “A Dream,” “The Seal Man,” “God Made a Tree,” and “The Donkey” (the latter two performed from Clarke’s manuscripts), interleaved with songs by Lee Hoiby and Ellen Zwilich.
The first (of an eventual four) of Ponder’s Clarke survey-albums (British Music Society BMS 404; 1983) came out shortly thereafter, with another fine performance of the Trio (Raymond Ovens, George Ives, and John Alley) and a generous selection of songs (Graham Trew and John Alley) that began to suggest the full range of Clarke’s vocal writing, including premiere recordings of “The Cherry Blossom Wand,” “The Aspidistra,” “Eight O’Clock,” and “Tiger, Tiger,” the latter from manuscript.
Joiner produced a landmark survey of Clarke’s music with viola by Boston Symphony Orchestra co-principal Patricia McCarty (Northeastern NR 212; 1985), comprising the first American recording of the Sonata and the first recording anywhere of the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune (both with Virginia Eskin), along with premiere recordings of Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale (with Martha Babcock) and Two Pieces for Viola and Cello (with Peter Hadcock). He also reconfigured his entire production-concept at the last moment, in order to accommodate a set of liner-notes that came in at least five times too long for the space provided, but represented the most complete and authoritative account of Clarke’s life and career then available, and for some years thereafter.
Sterne’s deeply-researched, beautifully-mounted Songs of America: On Home, Love, Nature, and Death (Nonesuch 79178-1; 1988) was one of Jan de Gaetani and Gilbert Kalish’s finest achievements in the studio, which is to say that it is one of the great recordings of the twentieth century. Their performance of “Lethe” (another premiere) is definitive.
Michael Ponder produced three more survey-albums, together comprising virtually the whole of Clarke’s chamber music, apart from the Sonata and the Trio, and absolutely the whole of her music for vocal ensembles. Dutton CDLX 7105 (2000) includes compelling performances of Rhapsody, Epilogue, and the cello version of the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune (Justin Pearson); Midsummer Moon, Chinese Puzzle, and the violin Lullaby (Lorraine McAslan); and Ponder’s own viola-playing in Morpheus and the viola Lullaby of 1909. Dutton CDLX 7132 (2003) adds premiere recordings of the violin sonatas (McAslan), Three Movements for Two Violins and Piano (McAslan and David Juritz), Dumka (McAslan and Ponder), and the string-quartet movements (Flesch Quartet). Ian Jones, a major advocate of Clarke’s music in his own right, is the brilliant pianist on both discs, and his performance of Cortège is a highlight of the earlier release.
In between these two discs, Ponder produced Geoffrey Webber’s magisterial Complete Choral Music of Rebecca Clarke (ASV Digital CD DCA 1136; 2003),—a slight misnomer, in that the disc also includes beautiful performances of Clarke’s six duets for voices and piano—with the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and a roster of finely-attuned soloists.
Kenneth Martinson’s viola-based collection of instrumental chamber music, with pianists Christopher Taylor and Andrea Molina, and the Julstrom String Quartet (Centaur CRC 2847; 2007), recapitulates much of the repertoire from Ponder’s Dutton releases, while adding I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still, Combined Carols, and the viola version of Chinese Puzzle. The liner-notes contain many factual errors, but the performances are very fine—deeply committed but (where appropriate) fleet and good-humored.
The Cloths of Heaven: Songs and Chamber Works (Gamut GAMCD 534; 1992, reissued 2000 as Guild GMCD 7208) combines a nearly-comprehensive survey of Clarke’s songs with piano (Patricia Wright and Kathron Sturrock) and songs for voice and violin (Wright and Jonathan Rees), along with Midsummer Moon and Chinese Puzzle (Rees and Sturrock). Here again, the documentation is often faulty, but the performances are strikingly good. Full texts are provided.
If you’re not already grinning, you may want to move along to the next item—it’s a British thing; you probably wouldn’t understand. On the other hand, you might give it a shot, because “The Aspidistra” is the improbable hit among Clarke’s pieces, the only one that never went out of print, even temporarily, during Clarke’s lifetime. All of the available performances are good, but Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, in their magnificent In Praise of Woman: 150 Years of English Women Composers (Hyperion CDA66709, 1994; reissued as CDH55159, 2004; see below, under “Necessary Background”), bring a special note of genteel tragedy to the proceedings, while Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles (CRD 3473; 1991) earn extra points for their perfectly dreadful sincerity.
This little motet has proved to be Clarke’s sheet-music best-seller to date. The beautiful account in the Gonville & Caius collection (ASV Digital CD DCA 1136, 2003; see above) is the best all around, but Blossom Street’s performance, led by Hilary Campbell (Naxos 8.573991; 2019), captures the piece’s essential mystery, and has the added advantage of following the world-premiere recording of a glorious piece by Jane Joseph, who advised Clarke on her choral writing, and kitchen-tested some of her pieces.
When sung by girls, words like “Mater” become touchingly literal, and the little caesurae that Clarke put around “Jesus” suddenly seem to embody that heart-stopping moment of wonder, love, and shock that any self-respecting daughter is bound to experience when confronted with the subsequent fruit of her mother’s womb. Two recordings, both from Cambridge University—which, in 2008, broke 900 years of tradition to found the first college-based choir for girls in the UK, at St Catharine’s, and recently added a second, at Pembroke—convey this aspect of the piece beautifully: the St Catharine’s choir, ranging in age from 8 to 15, with apparently artless sincerity and directness (Resonus RES10170; 2016), and the Pembroke group, aged 11 to 18 (with reinforcement on the low-notes from members of the Chapel Choir), with great subtlety of tone and revelatory phrasing (Signum Classics SIGCD642; 2020). Both point up Clarke’s unusual choice of text—following Palestrina’s example, she set an alternative ending that anticipates, not “the hour of our death,” but a radiant vision of the Blessed Virgin in Heaven, where we may hope someday to see her with our own eyes—and this, in turn, validates Clarke’s wisdom in settling on the simplest, most diatonic version of the final phrase, after much indecision and hacking about.
The Cloths of Heaven
Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s extraordinary Come to Me in My Dreams: 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of Music (Chandos CHAN 10944; 2018) contains only this one piece by Clarke, but it’s one of Clarke’s greatest, and the performance is magnificent. The recital as a whole shows better than any amount of exegesis where Clarke came from as a composer, and the creative environment in which she flourished. It should also lay to rest any number of academic canards, among them the notion that there was anything unusual or self-limiting in Clarke’s fondness for lullabies (Britten, many times over), songs about sleep and/or death (Parry, Howells, Holst, Bridge, Moeran, Britten), nature-pieces with evocative poetic titles (Stanford, Muriel Herbert, Ireland, Somervell, Gibbs, Moeran, Gurney), or quiet endings (passim). With Parry’s “Weep You No More, Sad Fountains,” Dunhill’s “The Cloths of Heaven,” and Britten’s “Cradle Song,” direct comparison with Clarke’s settings is possible, and Clarke stands out for her lightness of touch and economy of means, demonstrating—to paraphrase Howells on Bridge—how her “pronounced aptitude for chamber-music performance powerfully affected the whole process of [her] thought.”
PIanist Ian Jones made the first playing-edition of this piece, and the experience shows in the vivid detail and contrapuntal depth of his performance with Lorraine McAslan and Michael Ponder (Dutton CDLX 7132; 2003), and also in its smoking intensity—for all its subtle layering, McAslan/Ponder/Jones is still more than half-a-minute faster than its nearest rival, Jay Zhong/Kenneth Martinson/Andrea Molina (Centaur CRC 2847; 2007). The latter is beautifully played and very powerful, especially in the spooky fadeout ending, but it probably represents an outer limit for timing: the other recordings in the current catalogue, each nearly a minute longer than Zhong/Martinson/Molina, lose force and interest long before they end.
Susanne Mentzer’s recital-disc The Eternal Feminine (Koch International Classics 3-7506-2 HI; 2001) includes five of Clarke’s best songs, all done with the warmth and charm that this great theatre-artist has always been treasured for. But Mentzer’s performance of “Infant Joy” is something special: not even a minute-and-a-half long, it is perfect, and contains a world. Pianist Craig Rutenberg is predictably magnificent throughout a substantial, richly varied program.
Lullaby for violin and piano
Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle do a beautiful job with this piece on their wildly successful album Violin Lullabies (Cedille CDR 90000 139; 2013), where it sits very comfortably between Ravel and Schubert, and not too far from Ysaÿe, Clarke’s childhood idol. Lorraine McAslan and Ian Jones take a very different approach on the earlier Dutton collection (CDLX 7105; see above, under “Essential Collections”), going right to the heart of what Calum MacDonald aptly called “a haunting, uneasy miniature.”
It’s easy to underestimate this piece, if only because of its title, which even Clarke thought was a bit dopey—”I’m calling it ‘Midsummer Moon,'” she wrote in her diary, “which is the best title I can find that describes it.” For all that, it’s an intoxicating six minutes of music, with one of the best nightingales in the repertoire—”better, after all, than Raspighi’s [sic] gramophone,” as an early reviewer pointed out. There are several excellent recordings: Rees/Sturrock and McAslan/Jones (1992 and 2000, respectively; see above, under “Essential Collections”), Elvira Bekova/Eleonora Bekova (Chandos CHAN 9844; 2000), and Laura Kobayashi/Susan Keith Gray (Albany TROY372; 2000). McAslan/Jones achieve an ideal balance of delicacy and passion. Daniela Kohnen’s arrangement for viola can’t possibly duplicate the original’s gorgeous sheen, but it’s musically compelling on its own terms (with Holger Blüder; Coviello Classics 50202, 2001).
Paul Coletti was the first great exponent of Morpheus after Clarke’s time, and it was his advocacy that led to the piece’s publication in 2001. His video of Morpheus—a best-seller in Japan—is one of the Great White Whales of the Clarke discography, but his CD English Music for Viola (Helios CDA66687; 1993, reissued 2001 as CDH55085), with Leslie Howard, remains the benchmark audio-only performance. Aloysia Friedmann’s recording (Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival OICMF 0523; 2007) offers something unique—an evocative performance on Clarke’s own viola, beautifully supported by Jon Kimura Parker.
For a piece that remained in manuscript until just the day before yesterday, Rhapsody has been extraordinarily present in broadcast and recording studios, from Moray Welsh and Andrew Ball (BBC, 1987), to Justin Pearson and Ian Jones (Dutton CDLX 7105, 2000), to Raphael Wallfisch and John York (Lyrita SRCD.354; 2016), and most recently to Lionel Handy and Jennifer Hughes (Lyrita SRCD.383, 2019). We will comment on these fine performances when the published edition penetrates the haze involved in transatlantic shipping during COVID-19.
The Seal Man
Sarah Wegener’s performance with Götz Payer (Avi-music 42 6008553374 9; 2017) is one of the finest things in the Clarke catalogue: flamingly theatrical, yet sung with unfailing beauty of tone, it reveals a tiny Tristan, overwhelming in its passion, powerful out of all proportion to its length, and all done—as Clarke said of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge—”with such simple means.” Close the door and turn off your devices: what Wegener does with the word “calling” is worth the price of the disc, and Payer’s work is poetry itself. When the moon makes a track on the sea, and the lovers walk down it, it is truly “like a flame before them.” Words fail.
Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles (CRD 3473; 1991) take a different approach, remembering that this is not a music-drama but part of a complex narrative spun out by an old woman of the village: their performance has adult distance and a sort of flickering, compassionate irony to it, but it’s just as powerful, in its way, as Wegener/Payer’s. What Walker does with the word “drowned” is beyond belief, and Vignoles is, as always, the perfect partner.
Povla Frijsh was not everyone’s cup of tea, even in her prime—Clarke herself described her, with a tiny near-grimace, as “a sort of diseuse“—but Frijsh’s 1940 RCA Victor recording of “Shy One,” with the great Celius Doughterty at the piano, is the first known commercial release of any of Clarke’s works, and a conspicuous item in Frijsh’s two-volume survey of the art song, which Gramophone hailed as a project “of the greatest importance imaginable,” containing “the greatest piece of dramatic singing on record.” The entire set is included in Povla Frijsh: The Complete Recordings (Pearl CD GEMM CDS 9095; 1992). Clarke left no known record of how she felt about Frijsh’s interpretation of “Shy One,” but Frijsh’s recordings certainly show what Clarke was up to with “The Donkey,” which she custom-crafted to play to Frijsh’s strengths, breaking the text into small rhetorical units, each strongly characterized and cleanly articulated, and enveloping the solo line in a cloud of sardonic dissonance, so that any passing flaw of intonation might pass as pitched speech.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, in their recital-disc In Praise of Woman: 150 Years of English Women Composers (Hyperion CDA66709, 1994; reissued as CDH55159, 2004; see below, under “Necessary Background”), have no such problems: their performance of “Shy One” is as close to perfect as I ever expect to hear, especially in its supremely fluent handling of Clarke’s giddy quintuple meter, which alone is worth the price of the disc.
If there’s ever been a bad performance of this piece on disc, it hasn’t come my way, and with at least thirty recordings of the original viola version in circulation somewhere in the world, it’s embarras de richesse, and there’s something for every taste. Koďousek/Novotná (Supraphon 1111 2694 G; 1980) and Coletti/Howard (Helios CDA66687; 1993, reissued 2001 as CDH55085) are classics, the former for its exquisite command, the latter for its emotional depth and a jaw-dropping account of the scherzo. Other performances in the current catalogue that I keep coming back to include, in chronological order, Vidor Nagy/Günter Schmidt (Audite 95.424; 1991) with its full-throated Romanticism, reminding us how faithful Clarke remained to her nineteenth-century roots, even at her most progressive; Ralph de Souza/Martin Roscoe (ASV CD DCA 932; 1995), for a gossamer scherzo worthy of Berlioz, and a powerful, unusually tight-knit account of the finale; Barbara Westphal/Jeffrey Swann (Bridge 9109; 2001), electrifying, especially in its transition to the finale; Daniela Kohnen/Holger Blüder (Coviello Classics 50202; 2001), delicate and probing, building to a conclusion of overwhelming power, the whole deeply informed by Kohnen’s study of primary sources; Barbara Buntrock/Daniel Heide (Avi-music 4260085533046; 2014), a lovely performance on a disc that offers an opportunity to replay the Sonata’s deadlock with the Bloch Suite at the 1919 Coolidge competition, and then to compare the two of them to that year’s other great viola-piece, Hindemith’s Sonata, Op. 11, No. 4; and Martin Outram/Julian Rolton (Nimbus Alliance NI6334; 2016), which traces continuities with sonatas by Stanford and Ireland.
The latest entry, by Dana Zemtsov and Anna Fedorova (Channel Classics CD CCS 42320; 2020), more than exceeds expectation, not only grounding the Sonata within the context of its French antecedents, but also treating the instruments as equal partners, and thus revealing how much matter there is throughout the texture. It’s easy to get lost in Clarke’s luscious surfaces and forget that her “pronounced aptitude for chamber-music performance powerfully affected the whole process of [her] thought” (to paraphrase Herbert Howells on Frank Bridge), so that even her grand, public statement-pieces are “like a drawing by a great artist done with such economy of line that the meaning of every touch can be seen with perfect clarity,” as Clarke put it herself. Zemtsov and Fedorova take the time to tease all this out, and the result is revelatory.
The cello version—which, like all of Clarke’s alternate instrumentations, is a carefully-considered freestanding work, not just a transcription—has also been well served on disc, bearing out one of Clarke’s most perceptive contemporaneous critics, who assigned the Sonata “a foremost place among the best written for ‘cello and piano.” Pamela Frame’s elegant premiere recording with Barry Snyder (Koch International Classics 7281; 1994), long out of print, has been reissued by ArkivMusic. More recent recordings cover a wide range of expression, from the directed composure of Alexander Baillie and John Thwaites (Somm CD 251-2; 2013), through Raphael Wallfisch and John York’s ardent lyricism (Lyrita SRCD.354; 2016), to Natalie Clein and Christian Ihle Hadland’s rolling thunder (Hyperion CDA68253; 2019), featuring a rocket-scherzo to rival Coletti/Howard’s.
There Is No Rose
There’s only one recording of Clarke’s ravishing lower-voice arrangement of this beloved medieval carol—in the Gonville & Caius Complete Choral Music (ASV Digital CD DCA 1136, 2003; see “Essential Collections,” above)—but it’s a beauty, rising to something like rapture in the florid final cadence. For an idea of what the piece might have sounded like in Clarke’s time, check out John Goss and his Cathedral Male Voice Quartet, the personnel Clarke almost certainly had in mind for it, doing E.J. Moeran’s arrangements of “Sheep Shearing” and “O Sweet Fa’s the Eve,” on a terrific disc of remastered 78 rpm’s from 1925-26 (Divine Art 27808; 2006).
Three Movements for Two Violins and Piano
This astounding suite dates from Clarke’s second year at the Royal College, in 1909-10, but you wouldn’t know it from the absolute assurance of her writing, or the profundity of the Nocturne, which distinctly prefigures the slow movement of the Trio, more than a decade (and a world) later. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could compete with the heart-stopping beauty of Lorraine McAslan/David Juritz/Ian Jones on the second Dutton survey (CDLX 7132; 2003)—as with Dumka, Jones made the first performing-edition of these pieces, and it shows, in a performance of utter commitment and loving discovery, itself a landmark event in the history of Clarke’s music—but Midori Komachi/Sophie Rosa/Simon Callaghan (EM Records EMR CD043; 2017) offer their own kind of passion, along with a hilarious take on “Danse Bizarre,” featuring a laugh-out-loud heehaw just before the final scamper.
As with the Sonata, there’s something for everyone. Ornstein/Kreger/Eskin and Ovens/Ives/Trew (1980 and 1983, respectively; see above, under “The Pioneers”) have pride of place, and after them came a slew of fine recordings, most of which are still in the catalogue: the Bekova Sisters (Chandos CHAN 9844; 2000), the Storioni Trio (ARS Produktion 4 260052 381625; 2014, with highly inaccurate liner-notes), Trio des Alpes (Dynamic CDS 7717; 2015, with highly misleading liner-notes), the Lincoln Trio (Cedille CDR 90000 165; 2016—a 2017 Grammy-nominee, and rightly so), the Gryphon Trio (Analekta AN 2 9520; 2018), and the Neave Trio (Chandos CHAN 20139; 2019).
But one recording of the Trio stands out above all others, not only as a definitive performance of the piece, but as one of the best recordings of Clarke’s music ever issued: a collaboration between pianist Martin Roscoe and various configurations of the Endellion Quartet, comprising Clarke’s Trio, her Viola Sonata, and Amy Beach’s magnificent Piano Quintet, Op. 67 (ASV CD DCA 932; 1995). The performance of the Trio (Andrew Watkinson/David Waterman/Martin Roscoe) is stunningly good, simply as performance; but more to the purpose, it realizes Clarke’s subtle rhythmic transitions with perfect understanding and seemingly effortless command, knitting together material that can feel episodic in other hands, and throwing into high relief the tightness and integrity of Clarke’s argument. This is the only recording based on the short-lived Da Capo Press edition (New York, 1980), which reproduced Clarke’s own working copy of the original publication (London: Winthrop Rogers, 1928) and, with it, accentuation in the piano bass-line, added by hand, that absolutely transfigures important passages in the outer movements (following rehearsal nos. 1, 9, and 27). If I had to choose only one disc for my Desert Island Clarke, this would be it. The Trio des Alpes recording runs it a close second, and is perhaps the best-engineered to date. In both performances, the slow movement emerges as a quiet statement for the ages.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson’s In Praise of Woman: 150 Years of English Women Composers (Hyperion CDA66709, 1994; reissued as CDH55159, 2004) is surely one of the finest song-recitals ever recorded. Apart from the beauty and sensitivity of the performances and the intelligence of the programming, this disc should forever put paid to the notion that there were no well-trained, hugely-accomplished, wildly-imaginative, boldly-expressive, formally-adventurous, harmonically-daring, and commercially-successful women composers in Britain in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: in fact, Rebecca Clarke walked into a rich and promising field the moment she started out. The disc includes only two of Clarke’s songs, but it sets them in revelatory contexts—”The Aspidistra” within hailing-distance of Liza Lehmann’s hilarious “Henry King, Who Chewed Little Bits of String, and Was Early Cut Off in Dreadful Agonies,” and “Shy One,” one of Gervase Elwes’s signature-numbers, near Maude Valérie White’s astonishing “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” with which Elwes was said to have stunned the room and left bystanders “perfectly unmanned.” The performances probably couldn’t be bettered, and “Shy One” is perfection itself. Sophie Fuller’s liner-notes are worth the price of admission, all by themselves.