For Clarinet Month on Bachtrack, we decided to conduct short interviews with clarinettists of some of the leading orchestras to get a view from the principal's desk and to learn more about the role of the clarinet within an orchestra. This time, we asked Antony Pay, Principal Clarinet with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Antony Pay © Eric Richmond
Antony Pay
© Eric Richmond

What made you choose the clarinet?

I can’t remember, except to say that my parents, who had no musical background, report that they asked me whether I would like to play another instrument, after my having learnt the recorder to an elementary level at school. Apparently I insisted on the clarinet.

Though my father had the offer of a saxophone from a friend of his, I refused it for some reason.

Did you have any clarinet heroes, clarinettists you’ve looked up to?

Quite early on we had a 78rpm disc of Reginald Kell playing part of the Mozart concerto, and I used to play along with this on my Bb clarinet. It must have been running fast, or perhaps my father adjusted it so that it was in Bb rather than A.

How long have you been playing with the OAE?

Since the beginning – or rather, since they included clarinets in a concert, which was one conducted by Roger Norrington, including Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto.

What’s your favourite orchestral solo? (Why?)

There are many... but the one in the slow movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is particularly wonderful. It’s not easy, but the effect is magical when you get it right!

What’s your most dreaded orchestral solo? (And why?!)

I once missed the isolated top C at the beginning of “Bei Männern” in The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne. It’s not a particularly stable note on my period clarinet, and what came out, unfortunately, on that occasion was a strangled squawk.

Now, you have to sit without playing anything for about 15 minutes before this entry, and those minutes throughout the rest of the run of performances I found... “difficult”. The second clarinet had said to me, “I don’t suppose anyone noticed,” which was obviously so far from the truth that I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since :-)

Funnily enough, Mozart didn’t write that wind chord in the autograph score. Whether he or someone else put it in afterwards, we don’t know. It occurs later in the number, of course.

What’s your favourite clarinet concerto?

You have to say the Mozart, don’t you? But the Nielsen is wonderful too.

Which clarinet work do you think is most unfairly neglected?

I have a soft spot for the Gouvy clarinet sonata, which is rarely performed.

Do you get opportunities to perform concertos with your orchestra? What’s your most memorable performance as a concerto soloist?

Yes, I’ve had the immense privilege of playing the Mozart and Weber concertos on many occasions, and recording them together with the Crusell concertos.

I suppose the performance I’m most proud of was of the Mozart with Bruggen in the 1991 Salzburg Festival, the bicentennial of Mozart’s death – and also the bicentennial of the year of composition of K622.

Can you give us a funny conductor anecdote? (Anonymous if need be!)

I like the story of the young Simon Rattle rehearsing the CBSO, awaiting news of the birth of his son. It was before mobile phones were common, so they ran a long lead out to the podium and set a phone on a stool. Suddenly, it rang.

Simon stopped, and picked up the phone. There was a long silence, and then he hung up. “What happened?” asked the leader, apprehensively. – “Wrong number!” said Simon.

And finally, for the real clarinet nerds, what make of clarinet and what make and strength of reed do you play? Do you play on plastic reeds as well?

I change a lot, playing on copies of Ottensteiners, Simiots and Grensers, Bangham basset clarinets, 1889 Buffets, etc. Currently, my modern setup is Howarth, Vandoren CL5, Pilgerstorfer German cut 1.5. No plastic, though.

Tomorrow, who knows?