A soloist on his ongoing search for his instrument's forgotten masterworks
The solo and chamber repertoire for clarinet includes some much-loved masterworks, and one could spend a lifetime exploring the wonders of the Mozart Concerto and the Brahms Quintet. But its paucity relative to that of my string and keyboard colleagues has meant that, in order to sustain a varied and stimulating performing life on stage and on disc, I’ve always felt inspired to search for neglected or as yet undiscovered works.
The fate of repertoire, and its interpreters, has always fascinated me. Had Brahms not visited Meiningen in 1891 and heard the soulful playing of Richard Muhlfeld then his four masterpieces for the clarinet would never have been written, and Muhlfeld would have remained an unknown provincial musician rather than one celebrated throughout Europe. Conversely, a simple twist of fate can leave a work buried for generations. Had clarinettist Pauline Juler not married and retired from playing then the fascinating works written for her by Robin Milford which I revived and recorded for Toccata Classics would surely have taken a firm hold in the repertoire. Recording gives us a wonderful chance to correct some of the injustices of the past. This has been the starting point for a number of my projects over the past twenty years.
Tracking down an elusive work may involve painstaking library searches, or require the help of a composer’s family members but occasionally a fascinating work falls straight into your lap. This was the case with Tibor Serly’s Chamber Folk Music for violin, clarinet and piano which features on 'Contrasts', my most recent disc, a wide ranging selection of Hungarian music for Champs Hill Records. In the interval of a recital in Devon I was chatting to a committee member who turned out to be the distinguished clarinettist and saxophonist Chris Gradwell. He told be about a copy of a manuscript he had by Serly (who famously competed Bartók’s Viola Concerto) which he had been scheduled to give the first London performance of in the early '80s with David Pettit and Nicholas Roth (of the Budapest Trio). Roth’s death though meant that this performance never happened and a wonderful, evocative work remained unheard. So, a chance discovery became the catalyst for a CD programme that would include Bartók’s Contrasts (the very first work I performed with the Gould Piano Trio in the early 90s at the start of our 25 year association) and Dohnanyi’s epic Sextet, alongside other smaller but delightful rarities.
Many of my discs have explored the wonderful English repertoire for clarinet. Studying with Thea King, who in turn studied with Frederick Thurston, provided a direct link to Finzi, Howells, Ireland and many other composers from a golden age of writing for clarinet. Exploring beyond these composer’s better known works has been hugely rewarding. My recording of Bax (Naxos) in 2004 was sparked by the appearance (literally in an attic!) of a manuscript of two movements from an early, student sonata. Whilst these movements show little sign of Bax’s future style, the early influences on display are illuminating. I also discovered that Bax had authorised his early Trio in One Movement for violin, viola and piano to be played with clarinet replacing viola, thus providing another intriguing work to set alongside his mature and masterly Clarinet Sonata on this disc.
I’ve recently turned my mind to neglected British Clarinet Concertos and once again Champs Hill Records will release my exploration of neglected works by Ruth Gipps, Iain Hamilton and Richard Walthew, as well as a John Ireland classic in a new guise. Once the hurdles of completing orchestrations and type-setting lost orchestral parts are cleared I look forward to bringing these works back to life, firstly on disc, then hopefully in the concert hall.
Robert Plane's new recording - 'Contrasts' - is released on Champs Hill. Read Gramophone's review