Friday., October 13, 2023 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, October 15, 2023 at 2:00 pm
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale for clarinet and viola
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Clarinet Quintet in B-flat major, op. 34
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Phantasy Quartet, op. 2, for oboe, violin, viola, and cello
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Trio no. 2 in C major, op. 87
Andante con moto
Finale. Allegro giocoso
Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale
The British-born daughter of an American archaeologist father and a German mother, Rebecca Clarke grew up in Britain but spent much of her career in the United States. She was the first woman to study at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford, whose pupils include nearly every significant British composer of her generation. When Stanford suggested that she change her primary instrument from violin to viola, she took lessons from a great pioneer of the viola, Lionel Tertis, and for much of her life she made her living as a violist, performing around the British Empire as well as in the US. Early in her career she was active as a composer of songs and chamber music, her most successful works being a piano trio from 1921 and one of the finest sonatas for viola and piano in the repertory, composed in 1919. As she had limited success getting her music published, she later devoted more of her time to performing, but when she found herself stranded in the US due to visa problems at the outbreak of World War II (both her brothers had settled here) she briefly turned back to composition. The Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale was composed in 1941 and premiered the next year in Berkeley at a festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, though it was only published in 2000. It was intended for her brother Hans Thacher Clarke, a distinguished biochemist who was also a fine clarinetist. Clarke spent the rest of her life in the US. A Rebecca Clarke Society (https://www.rebeccaclarke.org) has been working to publish and promote her work.
The title of the work gives a good idea of its content: a slow, lyrical opening, an athletic middle section, and a slow conclusion, each section being slightly longer than the preceding one. The two instruments, similar in range, are in constant, amiable dialogue. In style Clarke roughly occupies a space between Vaughan Williams, Ravel, and Stravinsky; the high quality of her work makes one wish she had found a more encouraging situation and left us more of it.
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber, the master of German Early Romantic opera, was a conductor and pianist as well as a versatile composer. Clarinet players remember him fondly: for his friend Heinrich Baermann, one of the first great virtuosi on the instrument, Weber composed a Grand Duo for clarinet and piano, a concertino and two concertos for clarinet and orchestra, and this quintet for clarinet and string quartet, which came into existence in Prague in 1815.
This quintet is often compared with the familiar one for the same scoring by Mozart—and not just because Weber was the first cousin of Mozart’s wife Constanze. Both works begin with a sustained passage in the strings that is answered by a livelier one in the clarinet. In Mozart’s quintet, however, the clarinet’s entrance begins a dialogue with the other instruments that propels the music forward; in Weber’s, the entrance leads into a regular tune for the clarinet accompanied by the strings. It is instantly clear that the clarinet is the center of attention and that the strings have a subordinate role. The clarinet has most of the melodic material throughout; the passages in which another instrument has the tune or in which the thematic interest is distributed among the instruments serve mainly as contrast or punctuation to the clarinet’s solos. On the other hand, Weber’s themes are so engaging that one would not complain. The tune that rounds off the sections of the first movement is almost a polka—and in fact Prague, where Weber wrote the quintet, is the place where the polka craze would start some fifteen years later. The second movement, labeled Phantasia (fantasy) is thoroughly operatic, sounding like a somber scene for a heroine—played, of course, by the clarinet. The Menuetto features interplay between duple and triple patterns, carried out with a brusqueness reminiscent of some Haydn minuets. The Rondo gallops cheerfully to its conclusion, the main idea being another polka-like tune. In the middle comes a brief section where the instruments are answering each other and everyone is momentarily equal—but the clarinet falls silent, coming in again when it can once more carry the tune.
Britten composed this quartet as a student at the Royal College of Music in 1932. The title refers to the instrumental fantasies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and like them the piece consists of a single movement with several contrasting sections played without a break. The next year the great oboist Léon Goossens played it on a BBC broadcast and soon after gave the first concert performance; Britten dedicated the work to him. A performance at the 1934 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Florence gained Britten his first international recognition, and it has been a staple of the oboe repertory ever since.
Britten begins the quartet with a trick: the cellist plays a few isolated notes that gradually turn into a march, with the other strings joining in and finally the oboe adding the tune, making the music sound as if the players are coming in from a distance. The march continues at some length, there is a slower middle section, and then the march returns. In the last few measures Britten reverses the order of events from the beginning so that it sounds like the performers are marching away until only a few isolated notes from the cello can be heard.
Piano Trio no. 2
As with many pianist-composers, chamber music with piano occupies a special place in the work of Brahms. And yet, while he devoted a great deal of effort to this category, before the time he completed his first symphony in 1876 he had published only three quartets and one quintet for piano and strings, as well as two trios, one for horn, violin, and piano and only one, op. 8, for the conventional ensemble with violin and cello. Even that last work, apparently the only survivor of many attempts (an anonymous trio in A minor, possibly one of the works Brahms discarded, has been published and recorded), was later greatly revised and improved by the composer. In the later part of his career, chamber works with piano seemed to come more easily to Brahms: two more trios for the standard combination, a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, and six of his seven sonatas for one instrument (violin, cello, or clarinet) and piano. This trio from 1880-82 is a fine example of Brahms’s mature style. Chronologically it falls between his second and third symphonies, and it has an epic sweep that might seem as much at home in a symphony as in a chamber work.
The trio starts out quietly enough with a cheerful tune, but energy starts to build within the first phrase, and the movement proves to be in a heroic C major style that Brahms does not use very often. By contrast, the second movement is a set of variations on a somber melody that seems to be telling a gripping story, perhaps a dark tale from an old ballad. In the scherzo Brahms may have been thinking of Mendelssohn, who was the master of this sort of quiet, scurrying piece; the middle section provides a calm interlude before the scurrying resumes. The joyful finale is even more symphonic in conception than the rest of the trio, bringing the whole to a triumphant conclusion.
Jennifer Haas – violi
William Polk – violin
Kerri Ryan – viola
John Koen – cello
Richard Woodhams – oboe
Samuel Caviezal – clarinet
Kiyoko Takeuti – piano