From Manchester to Berlin

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column – an invitation that I found both humbling and daunting! The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in March 2005 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting up with the composer Alexander (Sandy) Goehr at his house just outside Cambridge. Together with Harrison Birtwhistle, Peter Maxwell-Davies and John Ogden, these composers make up the so-called ‘Manchester Four’; four brilliant students studying together at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1940s. Sandy went on, after more studies with Messiaen and Loriod in Paris and a career in teaching, to become highly regarded as Professor of Music at Cambridge University for many years, retiring just a few years ago. Readers with broad musical tastes may know his wonderful Monteverdi Paraphrase for unaccompanied clarinet, but may not be aware of his much earlier Fantasias Op. 3 for Clarinet and Piano. It’s a very difficult serial work but well worth study. The first performance was given by Birtwhistle and Ogden in January 1956 but it was championed by my teacher, John Davies, who also taught Birtwhistle.
John Davies remembers having help with the work from Erwin Stein, a great teacher and authority on serial composition and performance. If you haven’t read his marvellous book Form and Performance, head for your local library! Stein was a little old man at the time, but would dance about the room on his toes, singing and directing the performance. John and his pianist Else Cross (herself a pupil of Webern) went on to give performances all over Europe, as well as the first broadcast performance in May 1958. The three movements last about ten minutes, don’t involve any ‘modern’ techniques, and reap many rewards for the performer who is prepared to put in some really hard work, technically, rhythmically and musically!

Last weekend I went to Berlin for the final event of the tremendously successful Faszination Klarinette exhibition, mentioned in my previous letter. And what an event it was! Karl Leister played both the Mozart and Brahms quintets with the Leipzig Quartet. Karl’s playing is quite sublime – his interpretations at once sophisticated and subtle, his tone uniquely mellifluous and flowing. The five players followed their performance by returning to the stage and taking part in a question-and-answer session with the audience. What a wonderful idea – we ought to do this kind of thing more often. My German meant that about ninety-nine percent of it passed me by – but I enjoyed witnessing the enthusiasm and real interest shown by this very intelligent and clearly informed gathering. After the event, and a chat with Karl, we wandered around the exhibition picking up many exhibits I seemed to have missed first time round; the first edition of Weber’s Quintet, for example, and a catalogue of instruments once belonging to Henry Lazarus. We also explored the museum further, looking at other exhibits – perhaps the most extraordinary being a contra-bass saxophone, which was almost big enough to hide inside! (The kind of noises it might produce are fascinating to imagine!)

As usual, my letter wouldn’t be complete without some Sir Malcolm Arnold news. On a recent visit, Arnold’s carer Anthony Day asked whether I would do a wind octet arrangement of the terrific music for Hobson’s Choice, the wonderful David Lean film starring Charles Laughton and John Mills. There is already an Overture for wind octet – a very effective single movement written in 1942, and the late Wind Octet Op. 137 written for the Manchester Camerata Wind Soloists in 1988. The latter is not one of Arnold’s greatest works, but nevertheless very much worth a look. And I am at present in negotiation with a recording company to make a new CD of all these wind works – so watch this space!