The Clarinet

Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997) combined his advanced music studies with the profession of dentistry. He was a prolific and versatile composerhaving written music for ballet, orchestra, chamber ensembles of all kinds, concertos, choral groups, operas, feature films (26), documentary films (33), and television productions (119). Among his awards are the First Prize in the Jeunesses Musicales and the Guardian/Arts Council Prize. He expressed a preference for the A clarinet due to its warmth and the extra C# at the low end of the range.

The Clarinet Quintet was composed in 1985 for Angela Malsbury. The piece has an unusual compositional feature: two first movements are used, 1a and 1b. The composer indicated that “they follow each other without a break” and that 1a is not a prelude or an introduction to 1b” as “they both carry equal musical weight.” In this extended work the tonal harmonic language employed is eclectic: there are long passages reminiscent of the late Romantic era, folk-like melodies and modal harmonic tendencies recalling Bartók, the concluding cadence of the fourth movement “Notturno” recalls the choral music of Arvo Pärt, and lengthy melodies in the “Dispartitura” movement have an almost American flavour, to name but a few of the attractive features. The clarinet writing is idiomatic and challenging. Stamina and control are considerations as well. Ms. Merrick is equal to the challenge. Her technique is fluid and her clarinet sounds is velvety smooth. The balance is quite good, although the writing for string quartet is not as profound as for the clarinet.

The clarinet sonatas were written with close proximity to each other, much like Brahms did almost 100 years earlier. “What was good enough for him is certainly good enough for me”, stated Josephs. Sonata No.1 was composed between September of 1987 and March 1988. Only two weeks later Sonata No.2 had its opening movement completed.

Sonata No.1, Op.148 was written for Martin Powell. It begins much in the same feeling and harmonic idiom as the close of the Quintet. the clarinet is given a luscious legato theme that is taken up by the piano creating an intriguing two-part counterpoint that seems very fresh. The third movement “Scherzo” has some of the playfulness of the “Scherzo” of Françaix’s Concerto. Numerous octave jumps moving playfully through the ranges of the clarinet are answered by the piano in a humorous dialogue that makes its way into a rather grand waltz. One is also reminded of the jollity of Babin’s Hillandale Waltzes. “Monody”, the concluding movement, opens with a solo clarinet line which is developed to some degree spinning into a homophonic song texture featuring the clarinet as a solo singer. A marcato version of the solo clarinet melody blasts out of the idyllic texture in an extremely forceful manner, taxing the tonal control of the clarinetist. Josephs then spins this gesture into something more cantabile and emotional, reminiscent of the music of the French conservatory contest pieces. Perhaps the overriding feature of the composer’s music is the nature of continual discovery and changing nature of the language.

The opening of Sonata No.2, Op.149 is very forceful. The clarinet plays a truncated but flowing chant-like theme punctuated by unison interjections of the piano. It culminates with a fortissimo unison passage after which the clarinet is asked to play at the loudest possible dynamic level in the chalumeau register. Only in this passage is the intonation questionable. There is a noticeable distortion of clarinet tone and pitch at this point. the relative seriousness of the “Moderato” first movement is quickly replaced in the lighter “Intermezzo”. Apparent in this movement in this movement in particular is the treatment of musical equality between clarinet and piano. the faster movements do make enormous technical demands on the clarinetist. the concluding “Vivo leggiero” calls on virtuosity from the pianist. Passages abound with syncopation and a “perpetual motion” feel are joyous and sound fun to play. Altissimo control combined with technical prowess are prerequisites to mastery of the last movement. This sonata has just three movements and is much more outgoing than the First Sonata.

Linda Merrick enjoys an international career as soloist, recording artist and clinician. She specialises in contemporary repertoire and has been instrumental in encouraging new works for clarinet by British composers. She has performed at numerous I.C.A. and CASS conferences. Her technical mastery and innate sense of musical line are well demonstrated here. the clarinet sound is beautifully round and well focused except in the extremes of dynamic ranges. The recording quality is uniformly excellent.

This CD is a refreshing listening experience. The music of Wilfred Jospehs is probably not well known among clarinetists. The pieces presented here are appealing and require and advanced level of music-making ability and ensemble skills. The Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Benjamin Frith prove able collaborators. Josephs’ music, like that of other British composers in the 20th century, should be presented more often if only for the accessible tonal idioms and idiomatic clarinet writing.

—Christopher Bade