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Clarinet Quintet, Op 28


It was Gervase de Peyer who gave the first performance of the Maconchy and Cooke quintets (the latter in 1962, during the Festival of London for that year, for which it had been commissioned). De Peyer also launched the Benjamin Frankel Quintet, despite the latter’s intimate connection with Thea King. His dedication reads: ‘For Thea Thurston, to Jack’. Frederick (Jack) Thurston was one of the most celebrated clarinettists of his generation. He inspired composers of the calibre of Ireland, Bax, Bliss, Rawsthorne and Arnold not merely to write sonatas and concertos for him, but also to include made-to-measure solos in orchestral works knowing that quite likely he would be around to play them! He was not, however, around as long as he should have been. Cancer cut short his career in December 1953 at the age of 52, and it was to honour his memory that Frankel in 1956 composed his Op 28, his Clarinet Quintet. This was a BBC commission for the Cheltenham Festival and was first performed by the Allegri Quartet and de Peyer, a pupil of Thurston’s. The co-dedicatee, Thea King, had been not only a Thurston pupil but also his wife; but in those days she was not considered well-enough known to give a prestigious first performance on the air, so de Peyer was engaged. Both the Thurstons and de Peyer used to play for Frankel on his film recording sessions, he being one of a Holy Trinity of film composers who dominated post-war British cinema until well into the ’60s. The other two were William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold, and, like them, Frankel (1906–1973) never allowed his facility or his material success to compromise his non-film music.

The Quintet is a case in point. In one sense the musical language is ‘difficult’ in that it is highly dissonant, if not particularly complex; yet it is also ‘easy’ since, like Berg’s (with which it has some affinities), it communicates; it delivers its message to a public which does not, perhaps, have to understand every last note or chord. We do not, after all, look for precise meanings in a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, yet he rarely leaves us in doubt as to what he wishes to convey. No one, I imagine, whatever their level of musical sophistication, could be left unmoved by the finale of the Quintet, surely one of the sublimest elegiac utterances in English music of any period. For Thurston to have inspired this piece after his death is as great a tribute to his artistry as any of the music he caused to be created in his lifetime.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1991


Clarinet Quintets

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