Brave New World
Acclaimed clarinettist Emma Johnson's new release explores music composed against a background of war taking a cue from the title of Aldous Huxley's 1931 novel 'Brave New World'.
Emma has arranged Prokofiev's elegant neoclassical Flute Sonata Op 94 (1943) for clarinet and piano ' a world premiere recording. Hindemith's Clarinet Sonata (1939) is haunted by the shadow of war. ''its pastoral opening interrupted by military motifs, its mischievous scherzo continually beaten into submission. I find the slow movement one of the most despairing pieces in all of Hindemith's work' writes Emma..
Nina Rota's Sonata (1945) in three movements 'seems to be intent on beguiling us with a vision of hope for the future.' Messiaen's Ab'me des oiseaux (or 'Abyss of Birds) from the Quartet for the End of Time finds, by contrast, beauty in desolation with its sadness, its weariness..
Emma Johnson OBE is one of few clarinetists to have established a busy solo career which has taken her to major European, American and Asian venues as well as to Africa and Australasia..
Emma grew up in London and in 1984 she won BBC Young Musician of the Year. Early successes launched her career whilst she was still at school but she decided to study Music and English at Cambridge University before embarking fulltime on a musical path. A Patron of CLIC Sargent, the childhood cancer charity Emma was also the first woman to be made an Honorary Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge and was honoured by the Queen with an M.B.E. in 1996.
- Sleeve Notes
Sergei Prokofiev began composing his Flute Sonata in D major, Op.92 in 1942 while in wartime exile in the Caucasus (the Soviet authorities had removed several of their leading writers, artists and composers well away from the areas being fought over, further to the West). It was completed the following year and premiered in the Beethoven Hall of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow on 7 December 1943 by Nikolai Kharkovsky (flute) with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. Shortly afterwards, at the prompting of David Oistrakh, Prokofiev transcribed it as his Second Violin Sonata as flautists seemed to be in no hurry to take it up. This violin version (Op.94 bis) is perhaps more frequently encountered in the concert hall than the flute version, simply because the number of solo violinists far outnumbers that of flautists, but the original version has become a firm favourite with the latter. Emma Johnson's own arrangement of this work for clarinet is highly idiomatic, and also perhaps allows the wind instrument more force in the darker passages than the flute is capable of.
The Op.94 Sonata emerged immediately in the wake of Prokofiev's three powerful piano sonatas, Nos.6'8, often collectively known as the 'War Sonatas', and while he was at work on his opera War and Peace; but there is little hint of the ongoing war in the Flute Sonata, which is rather if anything blithe and bucolic, imbued with a mixture of lyrical warmth and a spirit of playfulness. It might be thought of as the piano sonatas' antithesis, for the composer was undoubtedly still at the height of his powers as he wrote it, and the result is an absolute classic. The opening melody of the first movement is one of Prokofiev's most exquisite inspirations, a song with a touch of melancholy that seems to float lazily in the air. A spiky transition leads to a second subject scarcely less dreamlike in its near-carefree melodic evolutions. Both subjects are repeated before Prokofiev plunges into an altogether more rhythmic and forward-driving development, but this is comparatively short-lived and the movement ends in the Arcadian realms in which it began.
A scampering scherzo follows, prompting the clarinet to some cartwheeling arpeggios and a plethora of witty dialogue; a sentimental-seeming trio section is soon disrupted by sudden bursts of humour and athletic displays from the clarinet. The scherzo is reprised and has a hilarious coda. With the F major slow movement we are with Prokofiev at his most intimate and lyrical: the main melody might have stepped from his great ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. The writing becomes more agitated, as if a chill wind is sweeping through the music, but the main melody surmounts this and maintains its lyrical song. In the closing bars the music turns ghostly and sombre.
Dark thoughts, however, are dispelled by the assertive, strutting finale with its bouncy second theme. The piano introduces a third idea which leads the clarinet into a series of bravura curlicues of melody. All three ideas are reprised and developed, introducing a new melody that harks back to the lyric idyll of the first movement, making sure the sonata does not neglect its soulful origins. Then the strutting, japing finale music strikes in again. Perhaps the movement as a whole is more defiant than light-hearted, but it projects a kind of sardonic confidence that seems to say, especially in the wild rejoicing of the coda, that the paradise outlined in the first movement is possible, but not without a fight, and at a price ' but one that is worth paying.
Paul Hindemith severed his last ties as a German resident immediately after the premiere of his ballet Nobilissima Visione in London. Crossing the border into Switzerland (not without hindrance from the Nazi customs authorities), he settled there from September 1938 until February 1940, when he emigrated to the USA. If 'settled' is the right word ' financial pressures dictated several concert tours, to Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and the USA. Nevertheless this was an immensely productive period. As well as working on a projected Brueghel ballet which became the piano-concerto-like Four Temperaments, he produced a veritable stream of instrumental sonatas: one each for horn, trumpet, harp, violin, viola and clarinet, continuing a series originally begun in 1937 with sonatas for organ, piano duet, oboe and bassoon. He seems to have been reassessing the expressive potential of the various solo instruments; and indeed several of these sonatas possess a tension and drama very different from the harmonious serenity of Nobilissima Visione. To a friend he confided that he was writing the sonatas as a preparation for a 'great work' ' the opera Die Harmonie der Welt, on the life of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. This Hindemith viewed as his chef-d'oeuvre, and intended to write it soon (he had already written the libretto), but it would not be until 1955 that he was finally able to commit it to paper.
The Clarinet Sonata in B flat, completed at the end of September 1939, shortly before Hindemith left Europe entirely, seems to have been the last of this series. The first movement initially seems leisurely and lyrical, but is always kept on the move by the contrapuntal interplay of clarinet and piano, and is apt to stray into distant tonal areas, with a touch of melancholy. A more assertive, rather march-like tune strikes in as a dramatic contrast, so that when the leisurely opening music returns we view it in a different, rather more sombre light, even as it lays itself to peaceful rest. Next, a lively, strutting scherzo, presenting plenty of opportunities for the clarinettist to show off their skill throughout the range of the instrument. There is a little, sinuous trio, neatly dovetailing back into the scherzo music, which is both compressed and more aggressive at its reappearance. The heart of the sonata is, however, the slow movement, Sehr Langsam, an uneasy meditation which seems to take us back to the world of the opera Mathis der Maler. Grave and melancholic, it has the clarinet spinning long lines that retreat into a sense of desolate solitude. A quietly rippling central section increases the air of mystery, and when the opening theme returns it is with a stern dignity, rising to a passionate climax. As the music evanesces in an elegiac coda, one cannot but feel that this movement stands for something very personal ' perhaps a lament for the past, or even an anticipated farewell to Europe. Such thoughts seem immediately dispelled by the concluding Kleines Rondo, a movement at once breezy and purposeful (the main theme is a kind of march), which shows Hindemith at his most inventive in a short space. The more mellifluous episodes are a perfect foil to the main theme, and the unexpected, downbeat ending leaves the audience hungry for more.
Time-travelling seamlessly between Mozart and La Strada, the concert music of Nino Rota is hard to pigeon-hole (a 20th-century Rossini? an Italian Poulenc, perhaps ' but with an admixture of neoclassical Busoni?) but very easy to enjoy. Wit abounds, sentiment is worn unashamedly on the sleeve, but everything is trimly turned out, beautifully scored, and nothing outstays its welcome. Something of an infant prodigy, Rota studied with Alfredo Casella, among others, but seems to have decided early on to give aggressive modernity a miss. Though most widely famed as a composer of film scores, Nino Rota was active throughout his career in most of the conventional genres, and handled them with equal skill and genial aplomb. From the close connection between film and concert hall in his output we may conclude either that in his film scores Rota refused to relax his standards, or that cheerful eclecticism was his natural bent, equally suited to screen, stage or concert hall.
Rota's Clarinet Sonata in D was written in 1945. It bears few if any outward signs of that dramatic year in Italy's history; rather it seems like a dream of another, better world. In the Allegretto scorrevole first movement, the unforced outpouring of melody seems timeless, or rather not rooted in any particular time. Clarinet and piano caress each other's lines: beauty of tone is what is important here, with buckets of melodic charm, the sensuous pleasure of wide-ranging modulation and of comfortingly familiar cadences. Weightless as a balloon floating in a clear sky, Rota's melodic line for the clarinet opens up ' with mature, highly developed art ' a world of almost childlike pleasure. The central Andante, conceived it seems in bosky shadow, is perhaps more serious, certainly more melancholic, but its sentiment is always contained within a fine elegance of utterance. At the centre occurs a kind of broken recitative, but this too is subsumed into the overall mood, which is perhaps darkest at this point. Like the first movement, the last is marked scorrevole, 'scurrying', and perhaps bears the epithet better. Here again, though, we have an unforced, apparently spontaneous flow of melody that, surprisingly, in one episode, lets rip with wild clarinet trills and massive, almost Brahmsian piano writing. This looks forward to the fine flourish of the coda, which ends the sonata almost more decisively than it seems to require.
Witold Lutosławski described his 5 Dance Preludes as his 'farewell to folklore', and indeed they mark the end of a period from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s in which he had been able to largely avoid criticism and persecution from the ruling Stalinist regime in Poland by turning to folk sources for his music, either directly or, as in the Preludes, in subtly sublimated form. The great achievement of this period was of course his monumental and now world-famous Concerto for Orchestra, to which the Preludes, by turns blithe and haunting, form a kind of downbeat epilogue. Written in 1954'55, they were premiered in Warsaw on 15 February 1955 in this original form for clarinet and piano. But Lutosławski subsequently produced two other versions: one for clarinet, harp, piano, percussion and string orchestra (1955) and one for clarinet with wind quintet and string quartet (1959). In these various versions the Dance Preludes have become one of his best-loved works. They are all based on Polish dance rhythms, if not on actual folktunes. Basically, the odd-numbered Preludes are fast, witty and capricious, while Nos. 2 and 4 are more soulful melodic inspirations. Terse and pithy, they are all very short, but all show an intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the clarinet in its every register.
Olivier Messiaen's Vocalise-Étude was originally conceived for wordless voice and is an early work (from 1935), but one that signalled his growing eminence among the younger generation of French composers. It was commissioned for a collection of such vocalises being put together by A. L. Hettich, a celebrated voice teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, who successfully invited such luminaries as Ravel and Rachmaninov to contribute to a series of volumes published yearly by Leduc. This short, ecstatic work sounds equally well on the clarinet, and is already characteristic of the composer in its whiff of orientalism, its rainbow harmonies, its melodic line soaring somewhere between earth and heaven. It is interesting to note that many years later Messiaen made an orchestral version as a movement of his last work, the Concert ' Quatre.
At the outbreak of World War II Messiaen was called up into the French army, but due to his poor eyesight served as a medical auxiliary rather than a soldier. In May 1940 he was captured at Verdun and spent two years as a prisoner of war, held in the German POW camp Stalag VIII-A at G'rlitz in Silesia. It was here that he wrote his only large-scale chamber work, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for violin, clarinet, cello and piano. The instrumentation was chosen because his fellow-prisoners included a clarinettist, a violinist and a cellist (whose instrument, provided by the German officers, was missing one string), and they ' with Messiaen at a battered upright piano ' gave the premiere of the Quartet in the camp in January 1941, in freezing winter conditions, to an audience of 5,000 prisoners and their guards. 'Never', he wrote long afterwards, 'have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.'
Considering himself and his fellow-prisoners to be living through apocalyptic times, Messiaen conceived the work as a meditation on the passage in the biblical Book of Revelations in which a mighty angel descends from heaven to proclaim, 'There Shall Be Time No Longer' as the announcement of the end of all things. The third movement, Ab'me des oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds), is for unaccompanied clarinet and features transcriptions of birdsong. Messiaen wrote of this piece: 'The abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and tediums. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant outpourings of song.'
- Press Reviews
"Emma Johnson plays the work of Prokofiev, Hindemith and others with deftness and personality"
- Daily Telegraph
"All expertly performed and well‐recorded."
- The Arts Desk "Johnson boasts her trademark expressive personality. Lenehan is a fine keyboardist [who] has the artistic knowledge to enhance the music and meet every nuance."
- American Record Guide "Johnson has captured the captives with mesmerising play."
- Rick Jones "...the entire program is quite an uncanny experience. Highly recommended."
- James Manheim
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