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.
When British mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately steps in at the last minute for a travel-restricted colleague, she brings backup in the form of her Mum and her Dad—and when Mum is the bewitching Dolly from the BBC’s Geordie epic When the Boat Comes In, and Dad is Inspector Lewis, that’s some serious backup. Add the brilliant pianist Simon Lepper, and you’ve got one hell of a show.
The item in question, ‘Careful the tale you tell…’, streams live in HD on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent), and remains available for replay through New Year’s Day, 2021, as part of Wigmore Hall’s terrific Autumn 2020 Series.
The bill of fare—a rich stew of readings, narratives, stories-in-song, and songs about storytelling—ranges all the way from Tennyson to Atwood, and from Stanford to Sondheim. Along the way, it picks up John Masefield’s The Seal Man, as set by Rebecca Clarke, and since Simon Lepper was half of one of the best performances of that piece we’ve ever heard, and since he and Kitty Whately reportedly operate on a comparably exalted plane, we signed up at once, even without the added glam-factor of Mum and Dad—whose names, in case you haven’t already worked this out, are Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately.
Login required—it takes all of two minutes to set up, here. Contribution requested, and worth every penny.
We’ve been raving for some time about a superb performance of The Seal Man that’s running on BBC Radio 3 through November 29, and now—thanks to our new friends at BBC Northern Ireland and at Northern Ireland Opera, and by kind permission of the artists—we can bring it to you on a continuing basis. You can find it on an Audio page that we’ve just created for recordings of exceptional interpretive value or historical importance that are not available for purchase.
(Our running chronicle of commercial releases on CD, vinyl, and download platforms continues under the handle Discography—and if anyone has a more technopropriate collective noun, please let us know.)
The Seal Man is a defining work in the Clarke canon, and James Newby, one of Britain’s rising-star baritones, and Simon Lepper, one of the world’s finest collaborative pianists, put it over as if it were this morning’s breaking news, with every syllable bursting with feeling and intent. There’s nothing showy or stagey about it—it’s just a strange, beautiful, riveting tale, perfectly told, and if it doesn’t make the hair rise on the back of your neck, then you have no soul and I pity you.
Simplicity of means, clarity of gesture, and absolute truthfulness of expression are the hallmarks of Clarke’s style, and this gives her works emotional power and lasting impact without need of large forms, multiple movements, or vast amounts of time. She would never have claimed greatness for herself, let alone greatness on a par with Wagner or her idol Debussy, but the fact remains that Tristan takes about five hours to destroy your heart, and Pelléas needs nearly three, but The Seal Man gets the job done in only five minutes.
The piece is popping up everywhere these days—three of the most extraordinary recent performances are on our Video page—but Newby and Lepper seem uniquely attuned to everything we know about Clarke’s own performance-style, and the styles of the singers and pianists she valued most highly. Their work on The Seal Man is exemplary. Enjoy.
What with all the recent drama, both political and COVID-related, we’ve barely had time to keep up with concurrent musical activity, so let’s strap on our snazzy Rebecca Clarke masks from Arty Margit, and see what’s going on.
Now through November 29: BBC Radio 3’s broadcast from Northern Ireland Opera Festival of Voice 2020 turned out to be a total wow, with one of the best performances of The Seal Man ever, by baritone James Newby and pianist Simon Lepper. The Seal Man starts at the 3:20 mark, but you owe it to yourself to listen to the entire opening group, to texts by John Masefield—if you don’t listen to the entire program, which you should, so there.
Now through November 29: The Gould Piano Trio’s performance of Clarke’s Trio at Wigmore Hall also turned out to be an absolute high-point. This is one of those pieces that needs to be seen as well as heard, and the Hall’s visual production is on the same high level as the Goulds’ playing. Details of the webcast, and of the Goulds’ just-released audio-recording—both of which are highly recommended—are on our Shop page.
November 15: Baltimore’s venerable Chamber Music by Candlelight series presents Clarke’s spectacular “duo concertante” Dumka, performed by Kevin Smith, violin, and Colin Sorgi, viola, both of the Baltimore Symphony, with Daniel Pesca, piano, as part of a demanding program that also includes Gabriela Lena Frank’s Tres Homenajes: Compadrazgo, for piano quintet, and Smetana’s string quartet “From My Life”. The current edition of Grove’s Dictionary suggests that Dumka was something of a parlor-piece, when, in fact, it ought to come with a strong warning: “PROFESSIONAL PLAYERS ON CLOSED COURSE. DO NOT ATTEMPT AT HOME.” The burn starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (check here for your local equivalent), and continues through December 15.
November 15: The Endler Concert Series at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University presents Lynn Rudolph and José Dias in a nifty program that features Clarke’s Viola Sonata, and works by Bach, Nadia Boulanger, and Hendrik Hofmeyr (details here). The video debuts at 4:00 p.m. South African Standard Time (check here for your local equivalent) and remains available until November 22.
December 8: Clarke’s Sonata also headlines a concert in Wigmore Hall’s terrific new Live Stream Series, 95 years after the composer herself presented it there, but this time with Natalie Clein and Cédric Pescia performing Clarke’s version for cello, a carefully-considered freestanding work—not just a transcription—that amply bears out one of Clarke’s most perceptive contemporaneous critics, who assigned the Sonata “a foremost place among the best written for ‘cello and piano.” The program debuts at 7:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent) and remains available through January 7, 2021. Sign-in required, donation requested, and well worth it.