Photo Credit: Steve the Artist

Roll over, Binnorie—it’s turning into a banner year for Midsummer Moon, which gains depth and stature with every hearing.

First, we had a mesmerizing performance by Sofia Yatsyuk and Suren Barry, still available in Pontiac Enchanté’s Virtual Concert Hall. Then came a new CD by the young German phenom Lucie Bartholomäi and her performance-partner Verena Louis. And now there’s a run of performances by David Perry and John Goodwin, at Wisconsin’s estimable Midsummer’s Music festival. All three will amply reward your attention.

We’ve talked about Yatsyuk and Berry’s performance before, and we still agree with ourselves: this is a fine performance, passionately committed, in the midst of an uncommonly interesting program that also features works by Bloch, Tailleferre, Fauré, and Smyth.

The Bartholomäi/Louis CD (here, here, and here) is remarkable for several reasons: the impressive command on display, from a very young performer; the quiet excellence of the program, which features compelling pieces by Farrenc, Beach, and Clara Schumann, in addition to Clarke’s Chinese Puzzle and Lullaby; and the extraordinarily high quality of the recording, which makes the piano an equal partner in the proceedings, thus reminding us how superb Clarke’s keyboard-writing is. Louis‘s work is worth the price of the disc, all by itself.

Perry and Goodwin are giving three performances: tomorrow, June 23, 2021, and Tuesday, June 29, both in Fish Creek; and July 1 in Egg Harbor—live and in person only, but if you’re anywhere near the Door Peninsula, this is the place to be. Details of the series here; tickets here. This, too, is a fascinating program, flanking Midsummer Moon with quintets by Clarke’s contemporaries Adela Maddison and Ernst von Dohnányi. As far as we know, Clarke and Maddison never crossed paths, but Clarke was famous far and wide for her playing of Dohnányi’s chamber music. His Quintet in C minor (which figures on the Midsummer’s Music program) was one of the hits of her first season in Hawaii in 1918-19 (see below), so much so that they had to repeat it the following year, with different personnel; and a rip-roaring performance of his Serenade, Op. 10, was the high-point—”a brilliantly written work, brilliantly played,” according to press-reports—of what turned out to be her final performance with the English Ensemble before she was trapped in the U.S. by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Philharmonic Society of Honolulu Quintet Concerts, announcement of repertoire
(middle column, just below photo of Clarke), Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 24, 1918.
This was the first chamber-music series ever given in The Islands, and only the second in the United States.

The Online Concert Hall of Pontiac Enchanté, the terrific chamber-music series in Luskville, Québec, that holds forth in a half-converted horse-barn—gorgeous music-room made out of the original hay-loft upstairs, horses still making their own kind of music downstairs—has graced us with back-to-back performances of Clarke’s Binnorie: A Ballad and Midsummer Moon, and you can’t get much farther apart than that: the former is a bone-chilling tale of envy, murder, and revenge, while the latter boasts one of the best nightingales in the business.

We’ve raved about Binnorie in these pages once before, but last Sunday’s performance by Meghan Lindsay and Carson Becke, adds a whole new level of terror, as well as unexpected flashes of tenderness and sad irony. The text, as Clarke set it, is here. To repeat out original warning, the piece is more than two Liebestods long, and at least five times as intense, so you will need to allow a minimum of sixteen minutes without interruption: close the door, shush your companions, turn off your devices, and allow ample time to recover from Lindsay’s overwhelming delivery of the final curse—like the composer, she does not hold back. Here it is. Remember: you have been warned.

Earlier today, Sofia Yatsyuk and Suren Barry did a lovely job with Midsummer Moon, at the 20:43 mark of a rich and deeply rewarding program that also features works by Bloch, Tailleferre, Fauré, and Smyth. Clarke and Bloch were good friends, and she always freely admitted how much she admired his music, and occasionally allowed as how she’d cribbed from him a time or two. What’s interesting here, though, is the contrast between them, highlighting Clarke’s tightness of focus, lightness of touch, economy of means, and absolute command of the listener’s attention.

Donation requested, and absolutely appropriate.

Two of Clarke’s earliest compositions just received what we believe to be their first public performances, over Clarke’s strenuous objections. Let me explain.

Clarke wrote twenty-or-so vocal pieces, mostly to German texts, while she was still just an adventurous teenager with a few terms of harmony under her belt, but no instruction or guidance in composition. She held onto those pieces for the rest of her life, all the while claiming that they were “sentimental and amateurish,” and not worth paying attention to. For years, she even pretended that they were lost. When they came into my hands, along with Clarke’s rights and the rest of her manuscripts, I found myself strongly inclined to follow her lead, on the theory that she was the best judge of her own music. I let people see them, of course, but so far as I know, nothing ever came of the various research-papers, degree recitals, or recording-projects that were floated over the years…

…until recently, when pianist Brock Tjosvold and mezzo-soprano Kyrsten Chambers Jones took a look at the German-texted songs and decided to prepare Wandrers Nachtlied and Aufblick as part of their entry in this year’s Jessie Kneisel Lieder Competition, sponsored by the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. It worked out well for everyone: Tjosvold and Jones took first and second, respectively, and the Clarke songs were featured at the Winner’s Concert, on May 22, 2021.

We can’t absolutely guarantee that these are world premieres, but it seems pretty likely—and you couldn’t ask for better advocates:

It’s hard to establish dates for most of Clarke’s amateur and student compositions, but Wandrers Nachtlied (1903?) appears to be the earliest of the lot. It’s remarkably impressive and effective, but Aufblick (1904) is the real deal—not just musically, but as an exact and complete fulfillment of Richard Dehmel’s subtly complex, ambiguous poem (in each video, click “Watch on YouTube” and then “See More” for texts and translations). Clarke, Webern, Szymanovski, and Bax all made settings of Aufblick within a few years of one another, but Clarke was the only one of the bunch who had the acuity to make a distinctly new sound before crying “Hark!”, and the only one to realize (or to care?) that Glockenchöre (plural) require more than one bell sounding at a time (lookin’ at you, Webern), and that Glockenchöre emanating from a distant cathedral should neither set off hysterics in the observer (Szymanovski), nor suggest that Isolde, in extremis, had somehow got hold of a large tam-tam (Bax). Unlike Bax and Szymanovski, Clarke did not commit the naive vulgarity of illustrating the gushing stream and twinkling stars that are explicitly and importantly not present on the occasion. Pretty good for an uninstructed eighteen-year-old.

Tjosvold and Jones’s performances are terrific, even with the unavoidable masks, and that’s doubly satisfying because all this represents a homecoming of sorts. Clarke’s family was deeply involved with Eastman, in every sense of the word. Her father was Kodak’s principal man-about-Europe, in addition to being George Eastman’s bike-buddy and preferred personal advisor on art and music—so highly favored that Eastman relied on him pick out the scores that formed the basis for what became the Sibley Music Library. Clarke’s brother Hans, a biochemist, worked for Kodak for some years, and was responsible for many important company patents. Her brother Eric managed the Eastman Theatre before moving on to the Metropolitan Opera. And at the conclusion of Clarke’s round-the-world tour in 1923, she gave a command performance of her still-sensational Viola Sonata in George Eastman’s living-room (either door to the right of the staircase), where she was delighted to see her old pal Eugene Goossens, who had “done wonders” with the brand-new Rochester Symphony Orchestra, and many of that orchestra’s musicians, who “were simply sweet.”

See what you think about those songs. Maybe Clarke was too hard on herself, after all.

Rudolph Dührkoop, Frau Richard Dehmel, Hamburg, 1906, https://sammlungonline.mkg-hamburg.de/en/object/Frau-Richard-Dehmel/AB1988.338/mkg-e00132388

We’ve been Tweeted! We don’t think we’ve ever been Tweeted before. We’ve certainly never been Tweeted by King’s College, Cambridge, even though we did meet Sir David Willcocks one time.

Check it out here, and be sure to follow the link to our posting on The Seal Man, which is really quite brilliant and stimulating, if we do say so ourselves.

Proud Songsters: English Solo Song, the recording driving all this, is really quite brilliant, too. See the links in our Shop.

SWAP’ra, the British artistic collaborative that seeks to “build a supportive community and to effect positive change for women and parents in opera,” with the ultimate goal of fostering “an environment in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy,” has put on a mind-blowing 17-episode online festival featuring songs by a stunning array of female composers, performed by students at virtually every major music conservatory in the UK, comprising the Royal Welsh College of Music and Art, the National Opera Studio, the Guildhall School, the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, and the Royal College of Music.

For Clarke aficionados, the big news is Episode 17, from Clarke’s old stomping grounds at the Royal College, featuring four of her earliest compositions as an independent adult composer: her first setting of a Yeats poem, and three songs to old Chinese texts, all dating from around 1910, and all performed from manuscript. Tears, one of the Chinese lyrics, has been recorded before (Guild GMCD 7208), but the other songs are making their first appearances before the general public.

The festival’s overall title is Forgotten Voices, and while we gently demur on Clarke’s behalf—caught up as we are in a massive trawl through her 113 years (and counting) of press-coverage, and having her fan-mail in hand—there’s bound to be a lot here that you will find delightfully new. We’ve got our eye on the Welsh program in Episode 1, and we hear great things about the Hedwige Chrétien cycle in Episode 16, but the whole shebang is available—gloriously free!—through April 5, so we’re determined to enjoy every moment of it, at least twice. Go ye and do likewise.

The most efficient overview of the repertoire is here, complete with composer bios and selected lyrics. The programs themselves are here.

Texts for the Clarke songs, in the sources she almost certainly consulted, are available online: in order of performance, One That Is Ever Kind (“The Folly of Being Comforted”), Return of Spring, Tears, and The Color [Clarke’s spelling] of Life.

If you hear “Foxy Lady” chords in any of this, you are not wrong: Clarke was using jazz inflections before the term itself was documented.

Sorry not to have clogged your in-box for nearly a month, but we gave ourselves a writing-break. So here’s a quick catch-up on several noteworthy things that came in while we were doing a deep dive into Rebecca Clarke’s childhood.

Time-sensitive, because it live-streams only until April 16, is an extraordinarily beautiful performance of Clarke’s Poem for string quartet, by the equally extraordinary Carducci Quartet, at London’s Wigmore Hall. Here again, we can see Clarke’s wisdom in leaving this piece as a freestanding item—after that, what more could possibly be said? Poem begins at 28:25, flanked by Mendelssohn 6 and Shostakovich 2, both electric. Wigmore Hall’s programming over the past year has been a major reason for staying safe and staying alive, so be sure to follow the links under the video and contribute.

Available indefinitely, and definitely worth spending time with, again and again, is a transformative interpretation of Clarke’s Trio by the NZTrio, dating back to 2019 but just recently published in support of New Zealand musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the sheer beauty and focus of the playing, this performance is chiefly remarkable for bringing out the Trio’s commonly-overlooked Romanticism, which has the unexpected effect of revealing how unified—and how bracingly modern—the Finale is. It’s certainly not the only way to play the piece, but it’s one that you probably have never heard before, and won’t soon forget. We haven’t—in fact, we’ve put it up on our Video for one-click playing, at leisure.

While you’re there, have another listen at the thrilling performance of Clarke’s Sonata by Richard O’Neill and Jeremy Denk, and send good wishes to Richard, who just won the Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo, for his eloquent account of Christopher Theofanidis’s Concerto For Viola And Chamber Orchestra. He gave an exceptionally nice acceptance-speech, too.

Finally, writing up the current rash of Seal Man recordings and live performances turned up some fascinating documentary and visual evidence, so we’ve put it all together in a new Gallery feature. Not to be a one-note or anything, but if you harbor any remaining illusion to the effect that Clarke was a dainty-dish who hung out with wet-rag pals, take a look at the cast of characters involved with The Seal Man, and—as we say in Brooklyn—fuggedaboudit!

March will be chock-a-block with superb new Clarke recordings, one of them more than 30 years in the making.

LAWO Classics leads off with The Artist’s Secret, an absolutely fascinating recital by mezzo Bettina Smith and pianist Jan Willem Nelleke that features an unusual selection of Clarke’s songs—Infant Joy, June Twilight, and Eight O’Clock—along with pieces by Anna Cramer, Henriëtte Bosmans, Borghild Holmsen, Cecile Chaminade, Marguerite Canal, Poldowski, Lili Boulanger, and Luise Greger. The three Clarke pieces form a well-nigh perfect microcosm of her vocal-solo writing, with an unexpected but absolutely convincing bit of Sprechstimme in Eight O’Clock. The whole program is rich and challenging, and if you haven’t caught up with Poldowski or Bosmans, what’s keeping you? European release and worldwide download is set for February 26, with the CD available in the Western Hemisphere on April 9.

On March 12, Divine Art releases an album of twentieth- and twenty-first-century pieces for clarinet and strings, performed by the British chamber-ensemble Gemini and its director, clarinetist Ian Mitchell. The story of how this project progressed since Ian discovered Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale in 1989 is best told by Ian himself, in the album’s lavish and highly entertaining booklet. Suffice it to say that this performance of the piece, which also features violist Yuko Inoue on a thrillingly equal basis, is one of the best ever. As an added bonus, the booklet includes the first accurate transcription of Clarke’s handwritten de-facto program-note—an important contribution to the literature, since this was one of the few times in Clarke’s life when she explained so much as a note of her music. Readers who have been searching in vain for that “long fugato section” in the Allegro will be relieved to learn that Clarke actually wrote “tiny”—crystal-clear, right down to the crossed T and the dotted I. You can pre-order here or here.

On March 19, King’s College, Cambridge, releases Proud Songsters, a survey of English solo song performed by a knockout roster of singers (Michael Chance, Tim Mead, Lawrence Zazzo, Ruairi Bowen, James Gilchrist, Andrew Staples, Gerald Finley, Ashley Riches, and Mark Stone) and Simon Lepper, one of the world’s preëminent collaborative pianists—all of whom are King’s alumni. For Clarke aficionados, the pièce de résistance is Gilchrist’s tender, propulsive, emotionally specific account of The Seal Man, nearly half-a-minute faster than his previous recording, and hair-raisingly the better for it. With Britten’s Down by the Salley Gardens (Mead), Warlock’s Sleep (Stone), and Iain Bell’s riff on “Come away, death” (Zazzo), there are interesting comparisons to be made with Clarke’s settings of the same texts, for solo voice, vocal duet, and chorus, respectively. Stephen Banfield’s booklet-essay is a useful corrective for anyone who suffers from any lingering delusion that nineteenth- or early twentieth-century English song was some sort of hothouse-flower tended by sad maidens in darkened parlors with doors tight-shut, rather than what it was—a massive industry with a large, active market. You can pre-order here or here.

And more on the way. Clear your shelves.

Dr. Leah Broad, of Christ Church, Oxford, whose work promises to mark a real turning-point in—dare we say it?—Clarke Studies, will be available to answer your questions about her current research, via Zoom, on Friday, February 12, 2021, at 10:00 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent, and lay in masses of caffeine if you’re anywhere in the Western Hemisphere).

You may remember Dr. Broad’s terrific paper on The Seal Man at last year’s conference of the Royal Musical Association, or her recent article about Dame Ethel Smyth in The Guardian, or the announcement of her book Quartet—of which Rebecca Clarke comprises a very exciting and glamorous one-fourth—due from Faber in 2023.

The Q&A on February 12, part of an interdisciplinary graduate seminar entitled The History of the Gendered Body, will focus on new ways of understanding Clarke, not as the victim of legend—a characterization that Clarke herself strenuously rejected—but as a self-willed, self-determined, self-managed professional who set her own course, made her own way, and forged a style all her own. In addition, Dr. Broad will share some of her latest thinking about Clarke’s enthusiasm for things Oriental, from her taste in fabrics to several of her most distinctive compositions.

Anyone may join the session, and admission is free. Sign up here, by clicking the “Mailing list” button near the top of the page.

See you there. We’ll be the bleary-eyed type with the steaming mug of Lavazza Gran Selezione and the relentlessly self-advertising cat, making a determined effort to follow Clarke’s sterling example, as practiced in Molokai, Hawaii, on July 19, 1923, while taking a day off from writing Rhapsody: “Waked at 4 a.m., got into riding togs & motored to the south west end of the island, where the horses met us for a cattle-drive. Rode up across the rough country nearly to the other side, driving an ever-increasing herd of cattle before us. There were 22 of us, counting the cowboys. Had some wonderful gallops, my horse took a ditch, & I chased a truant calf & got it. Very thrilled. After lunch motored to the sea & rested.”

Go ye and do likewise.

We swore we wouldn’t clog your in-box with every single performance of Clarke’s Sonata that comes down the pike, but here’s one that promises to be exceptionally—well, exceptional: the collaboration of Rachel Roberts and Tim Horton, in an one-night-only event at London’s Conway Hall, livestreamed on Sunday, January 24, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent). The Clarke Sonata forms the climax of a powerful program that also features Schumann’s Märchenbilder, the extraordinary Capriccio pour alto seul (“Hommage à Paganini”) of Henri Vieuxtemps, and Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1.

Roberts and Horton have made noteworthy recordings of much of this repertoire, albeit not with one another. In fact, it’s their separate accounts of the Brahms—Roberts’s here, with Lars Vogt, and Horton’s here, in a remarkable live performance with Robin Ireland—that made us eager to see what the two of them, together, might make of the Clarke, especially in that grave, still passage that so mesmerized the piece’s earliest critics: “It is in the third movement,” wrote one, “that the composer has shown her greatest genius, for here the music is mystical and macaber [sic], in places as poignant, as moving as anything heard in the death chamber of Melisande. The beauty of the opening theme of this movement first announced by the piano alone will not soon be forgotten” (New-York Tribune, January 27, 1920). Having heard Roberts and Horton plumb the depths of Brahms’s Andante un poco Adagio, we can’t wait.

Conway Hall itself is of great interest: founded in 1887, when secular “entertainments” on the Sabbath were still controversial, the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts series is the oldest thing of its kind in Europe. As far as we know, Clarke never played there, but she would have approved wholeheartedly of the fact that the architect’s brief for the present structure on Red Lion Square, opened in 1929, required an acoustic perfectly calibrated to a string quartet.

Book your reservations here. £10.00 donation requested for those twenty-six and older, and almost certainly a bargain—and probably a blessing—at any age.