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. We caught up with Robert Plane, Principal Clarinet with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who shares his admiration for Thea King and Angela Malsbury.

Robert Plane © Jack Morley
Robert Plane
© Jack Morley

What made you choose the clarinet?

I’d been along the time-honoured school recorder route and always felt wind instruments would be my thing. I really wanted to play the flute though, and set off to the local music shop with the intention of getting a flute for my eighth birthday. But after having much more success getting a note out of a clarinet, that’s what I ended up with. I’ve never regretted it!

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

The generation of British players before mine was a real Golden Age. I grew up in Great Yarmouth, not exactly a town on the concert circuit, but when I was ten or so, Jack Brymer came to play the Mozart Concerto in the local Hippodrome (just after the summer circus season!) with the London Mozart Players. I met him afterwards and he signed my copy of his well-known book about the clarinet. He was a legend – a sound like velvet. Gervase de Peyer too of course, whose Weber Concertos recordings I listened to on a loop. But my greatest heroes have been my two treasured teachers, Thea King and Angela Malsbury. I was constantly in awe of Thea, with her connections to all those great musicians and composers, both in her own right, and through her husband Thurston. And without Angie Malsbury’s inspirational teaching, believing in me at a time when I didn’t believe in myself, I wouldn’t be in this wonderful profession today.

How long have you been playing with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales?

I’ve been a member of BBC NOW for 18 years, joining in 1999 following a seven-year stint at Northern Sinfonia. 

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

I think it has to be Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It lies in the most beautiful register for the clarinet and has a tenderness and intensity that’s unique. 

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

Rhapsody in Blue! It’s so hit and miss, and everyone knows what’s coming! 

What’s your favourite clarinet concerto?

The Finzi Concerto has a very special place in my heart. I was so lucky to get to record it with Northern Sinfonia over 20 years ago. Such intensity, passion and anguish in exquisite balance. 

Which clarinet work do you think is most unfairly neglected?

I think the Stanford Concerto is wonderful and hardly ever programmed. It’s the most Brahmsian concerto we have, a full-blooded Romantic work originally intended for Brahms’ clarinettist, Mühlfeld. I’ve made it my crusade to bring neglected British works back to the musical public’s attention and I’m recording a disc of forgotten British concertos next year, with exciting revivals of works by Iain Hamilton, Ruth Gipps and Richard Walthew.

Do you get opportunities to perform concertos with your orchestra? 

I’ve had many opportunities to perform both standard and unfamiliar concertos in my time in Cardiff. I’ve also premiered new concertos by Simon Holt, Piers Hellawell and Mark David Boden here, all remarkable works. Playing for a broadcasting BBC orchestra has given me the opportunity to play works that would never be programmed in mainstream concerts. The Goldschmidt and Christian Jost concertos and Boulez Domaines were particularly memorable.

What’s your most memorable performance as a concerto soloist?

I performed Simon Holt’s double concerto Centauromachy at the 2011 BBC Proms, an amazing experience. I was also privileged to play the Mozart Concerto on tour with the orchestra in China. As well as a packed concert hall in Beijing, it was broadcast on a big screen outside the hall and live on TV to an audience of six million, definitely my biggest audience yet! 

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

My colleagues will never allow me to forget a performance of Beethoven 5 in Cheltenham. In rehearsal, the conductor was asked how he would conduct the notorious opening and we were told the way it would DEFINITELY be done. When it came to the concert of course it turned out NOT to be the way it was done, and only myself and a lone double bass player came in with that appropriately-named “fate motif”. Very embarrassing and an important lesson learnt! 

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’ve played Buffet R13 Prestige for nearly 30 years, having grown up with Boosey and Hawkes 1010s. I’m currently on a Vandoren BD5 Black Diamond mouthpiece and Vandoren 56 Rue Lepic reeds strength 3. I’ve never, ever played a plastic reed!