In 2019, Classic 𝒇M, the British independent radio station, put Clarke’s Sonata first among “the 7 best pieces EVER written for the viola,” leading a pack comprised of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Walton’s Viola Concerto, Strauss’s Don Quixote, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, and Schumann’s Märchenbilder.
A few days ago, they ranked Clarke’s Trio as one of “the 16 best pieces EVER written for piano,” right up there with the Goldberg Variations and Rhapsody in Blue. Now, you may feel that this is stretching things just a tad far, but the writer insists, “No questions asked!”—and who are we to disagree, especially in the face of two remarkable videos of the Trio that just popped up on YouTube?
The first is a scorcher from the Berlin-based ATOS Trio, wilder and rougher than their near-definitive 2020 performance, which has graced our Video page since the day it was published. The second is an astonishingly mature account by students at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music—more deliberate than the ATOS, perhaps, but no less focused and passionate—which impressed us so much that we’ve added it to our Video page, too. Clarke’s earliest critics were bowled over by her piano-parts—especially coming from a youngish composer who was more familiar to the public as a famous string-player—and these recent performances show how right they were. Hyperbole aside, this is fabulous piano music—powerful, poetic, and brilliantly laid out for the hands.
The same point is inadvertently made in a video of a recent recital in the Oxford Lieder series, in which a faulty pickup seriously distorts the balance between singer and pianist, throwing Clarke’s keyboard-writing into altogether-too-high relief. Now, admittedly, this is seriously unfair to the artists—especially since their performance of The Seal Man, June Twilight, and Tiger, Tiger (beginning at 19:55) was so compelling that the audience in the room could barely contain itself until the final note had sounded—but we’ve been granted permission to offer it to you as a rare opportunity to experience the depth and richness of Clarke’s piano-writing directly, and to get a closeup look at several of her signature keyboard gestures: lavish exploitation of the deep bass, wide separation of the hands, and forceful deployment of the instrument as a clear-cut protagonist in the drama. All of this is most spectacularly on display in Tiger, Tiger, where the piano snarls, slashes, and slithers its way through a hair-raising apotheosis of the minor second. Be warned: the moment when that dread heart begins to beat may clasp you in its “deadly terrors” for the rest of your life.
On a somewhat lighter note, you might want to check out the latest exhibit in our Gallery, entitled “The 1911 Suffrage League ‘At Home.'” Bellona in her chariot! Winston Churchill whipped through the streets! British haute couture!