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Sonata for clarinet and piano


Although Herbert Howells wrote much music in a wide variety of genres, one would hesitate to describe his output as prolific. His chamber music appeared only intermittently: indeed, the Clarinet Sonata was his last work in this field, although completed in 1951. It was written for the late Frederick Thurston who gave the first performance with Eric Harrison in a BBC Third Programme recital. When the work was published some years later, the composer dedicated it to Thurston’s memory. The Sonata is in two movements, and its form is perhaps the most obviously striking feature. No less arresting are its tonal organization and thematic integration which are worthy of the closest study. But over and above Howells’s compositional mastery, the emotional appeal and haunting nobility of the work combine to make this Sonata arguably the greatest of its kind since those by Brahms. Although written for the less commonly used A clarinet, it was originally published for clarinet in B flat. In this recording Thea King plays the work on the A instrument, where the low C sharp—called for at several points by the composer, and beyond the range of the B flat instrument—can be heard.

The first movement opens with a placid, amabile figure on the piano, against the clarinet’s extended first theme. The piano quietly emphasizes a 3+3+2 quaver rhythm which assumes great importance. The inter-relationship between the clarinet theme—of memorable distinction—and the piano’s gentle undulation is very subtle, almost constituting a double exposition. The clarinet theme is restated, varied and contracted, during which important counter ideas are exposed. A sudden pause, and what seems like a dramatic second subject appears. In fact, this idea forms a bridge between the first theme and the second subject proper, for it is constructed from elements of both, and never reappears in this form. The second subject group—similar in mood to the first—is centred upon B minor, as opposed to the opening A–D modal ambience. If the exposition has been far from conventional the central development is also unpredictable. Utilizing all the expository material, it is extended and wide-ranging, and builds eventually to a climax at the summit of which the recapitulation—in G sharp minor—is upon us. This assumes the character of a second development, for it is constantly varied. The coda muses gently upon the clarinet’s opening theme, but the final A minor cadence declares the tonal roots of the movement.

The second movement begins worlds away with a jagged and rhythmically abrupt figure on the piano which on extension sets the scene for a more definitive clarinet theme. This is full of rhythmic change, of constantly shifting emphasis and metre. Gradually, elements of the material from the first movement are recalled: the 3+3+2 rhythm, now stronger and more urgent; the initial contour of the opening theme – these, among others, pass by, but do not entirely dispel the underlying urgency of the movement’s propulsion. Little by little the fiery nature of the music recedes until, after a cadential clarinet solo, a gentle Lento appears, in tempo like a miniature slow movement but melodically revealing the connection with the second subject of the first movement which is recalled on the piano. The stage is now set for the reappearance of the first theme of the Sonata, from which all has grown. When it comes on the clarinet the emotional range of the work is complete: it is marked ‘Placido’ and a more profound or lyrical ‘home-coming’ would be hard to imagine. The short coda, Allegro assai, come primo, leading to a firm A minor, recalls the opening theme of this second movement, but the piano’s 3+3+2 accompaniment signifies the wholeness of this truly masterly composition.

from notes by Howard Ferguson and Robert Matthew-Walker © 1997


English Music for Clarinet
CDD220272CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)


Movement 1: Con moto, dolce e con tenerezza
Track 1 on CDD22027 CD2 [10'45] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 2: Allegro, ritmico, con brio
Track 2 on CDD22027 CD2 [10'41] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)

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