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Sabine Meyer - French clarinet works

Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat major, Op. 167 (1921) [15:26]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for clarinet and piano, Op. 184 (1959-62) [14:03]
François DEVIENNE (1759-1803)
Sonata No. 1 in C major for clarinet and piano, (c. 1790s) [16:50]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Scaramouche (arranged for clarinet and piano in 1941) [9:52]
Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Oleg Maisenberg (piano)
rec. 26-28 September 2006, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 3 79787 2 [56:12]

This is a valuable disc of four works from the French clarinet and piano repertoire.
In 1921, the last year of his life, Saint-Saëns set out to compose sonatas for each of the main woodwind instruments and piano. Those for cor anglais and flute were never written, but he did produce sonatas for oboe, clarinet and bassoon. In the Clarinet Sonata Op. 167 one is in awe of the composer’s ability to write such attractive and varied music and of such impeccable character. It seems that, sadly, he never had the opportunity to hear the work performed.
The opening movement Allegretto is lyrical and engaging and the Allegro animato is performed with exuberance and playfulness. The Lento has a funereal, almost martial character with a repeated motif for Maisenberg between 1:32-1:59. Meyer has considerable opportunity for virtuoso display in the vigorous and brisk Molto allegro. The work concludes with a sad lament.
This account of the Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata now becomes the benchmark, however, I am also fond of the fresh and invigorating performance from Richard Hosford and Ian Brown (piano). The double set of Saint-Saëns chamber music from members of the Nash Ensemble was superbly recorded in 2004 at the Henry Wood Hall, London on Hyperion CDA67431-32 (Septet, Op 65; Tarentelle for flute, clarinet and piano, Op 6; Bassoon Sonata, Op 168; Piano Quartet, Op 41; Piano Quintet, Op 14; Oboe Sonata, Op 166 and Caprice sur des airs danois et russes for piano, flute, oboe and clarinet, Op 79).
Poulenc commenced his Clarinet Sonata in 1959 and completed it in 1962; appending the dedication, “to the memory of Arthur Honegger.” It was premièred in New York in 1963, the year of his death. Poulenc must have admired the clarinet greatly as he had previously written both a Sonata for 2 Clarinets, Op. 7 (1918/1945) and also a Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, Op. 32 (1922/1945).
The opening movement, marked Allegro tristamente is frequently discordant and may appear slightly puzzling to some ears. Matters soon smooth out with the appearance of a number of appealing melodies. The Romanza is apparently based on music from his dramatic three act opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957). The movement is initially unsettling before finding a tender lament in lyrical vein. I enjoyed the raucous high spirits of the finale, Allegro con fuoco described by Roger Nichols as, “an orgy of frivolity and naïve joy”.
Meyer and Maisenberg perform with much credit in the Poulenc yet I remain extremely fond of the version from Ronald Van Spaendonck and pianist Alexandre Tharaud for their songfulness and impressive control. Their performance is included in the valuable second volume of the complete Poulenc chamber music that was excellently recorded at the Temple du Bon Secours in Paris, 1995-97 on Naxos 8.553612.
The least known work on this issue is François Devienne’s Clarinet Sonata No. 1. Devienne, a name unknown to me, lived in France in the late eighteenth century, a versatile woodwind player and teacher who also composed in many genres including twelve operas. Little seems to be known about this work but it is highly attractive. One notices that the piano is a more equal partner for the clarinet than in many works in the genre. The opening Allegro con spiritoso reflects an easygoing and cheerful disposition whilst the sorrowful central Adagio carries a feeling of considerable grief and yearning. One welcomes the carefree Rondo allegretto that closes the score in an amusing and playful manner.
Scaramouche is a three movement suite for two pianos that Milhaud wrote in response to a 1937 commission. It uses material from his incidental music to the Molière comedy Le Médecin volant, Op.165. The score is suffused with Latin-American rhythms and to capitalise on its popularity Milhaud made arrangements for other combinations of instruments; most notably a version for saxophone and orchestra. The present arrangement was made, it seems, in 1941. I especially enjoyed the opening movement, marked Vif, which is zany, quirky and bracingly robust. The calm and relaxing Modéré has an exceptionally lyrical main theme (first heard at 1:11) and who could dislike the swiftly played closing movement Brasileira which catches a joyous carnival atmosphere.
On this EMI Classics release I was immediately struck by Sabine Meyer’s effortless control, broad tonal colouring and deep luxuriant timbre. Her impeccable playing is consistent throughout and enjoys the additional advantage of adept accompaniment from Oleg Maisenberg. I love the way that this talented duo express sparkling wit in the allegros whilst maintaining a flowing songfulness in the often poignant slow movements.
The sound quality from Potton Hall is of demonstration standard and given the interpretative excellence this release is an exceptional achievement for all concerned. This notwithstanding, the booklet notes would have benefited from more programmatic and analytical information on the actual works. Also the disc would have easily accommodated another score or two. There are lots to choose from in the broad French clarinet and piano repertoire, perhaps the Debussy Première Rhapsodie, Ravel Pièce en forme de Habañera, Chausson Andante et Allegro, Gaubert Fantaisie, Milhaud Sonatina and Duo Concertante, Messager Solo de Concours, Devienne Deuxième Sonata, Rabaud Solo de Concours, Poulenc Sonata for 2 Clarinets or the Tailleferre Arabesque and solo Clarinet Sonata.
This EMI Classics release of French works for clarinet and piano is an outstanding achievement.
Michael Cookson


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