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I am indebted to Thea King for the information that the Concertino was sketched during a train journey from Frankfurt to Budapest in 1926. The work began life as a quintet titled Divertimento for clarinet and string quartet. Its composition occupied Seiber on and off until 1928 and was his only major composition during that period. The present version for clarinet and string orchestra dates from 1951.
In common with many of his contemporaries at the time, Seiber became converted to neoclassicism, but Hindemith’s version of it rather than Stravinsky’s, and the Concertino reflects this preoccupation. It is possible to find in the opening Toccata some of the rhythmic elements associated with trains – running quavers punctuated by octave interjections suggesting wheels, rails and points, but the simile ought not to be taken too far. The Toccata develops into a lively contrapuntal exchange between soloist and orchestra in a modified sonata form with a brief development and the first subject reappearing in reverse order in the recapitulation.
The ‘Variazioni semplici’ is, as its title implies, a brief set of variations on a simple but endearing melody whose outlines evoke Hungary. The Scherzo, a witty but slightly acidic ‘joke’, obliquely reminds us of Seiber’s long-term interest in jazz, though the slap-tonguing demanded of the clarinettist has little to do with that beloved by the Ted Lewises and Wilton Crawleys in the New York of the 1920s. The Recitativo, subtitled ‘Introduzione’ (presumably to the finale) is another folky piece, full of atmosphere and coloured by rapid arpeggios on the clarinet, reminiscent of Bartók’s ‘night music’. Bartók, with Kodály, again comes to mind in the rapid finale, a dance whose outlines call up many such in the works of those two great collector-composers. A coda, pierced by shrill exclamations from the clarinet, again hints at that train journey, or at least its arrival at the Keleti terminus in the Hungarian capital.
from notes by Kenneth Dommett © 1986