This was a fine demonstration of the fact that the Three Choirs Festival is not just about singing. Nor is it confined to the cathedral, as this morning’s recital took place in the elegance of Hereford’s Shirehall. There was a capacity audience of around 400 in the bright and airy room, restful in pale blue and white, with few adornments apart from a frieze of gilded instruments in the corners above the stage. Against a semi-circular backdrop of empty tiered choir benches, just a piano awaited, not even a music stand for Emma Johnson – she played from memory, creating a delightful intimacy and rapport with the audience.

Emma Johnson © Joe Bangay
Emma Johnson
© Joe Bangay

Looking scarcely any different from when she became BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, she took us (along with co-pilot John Lenehan, brilliant on the piano) on a thoroughly entertaining and informative tour around some of the most important clarinet repertoire. Not only was her playing full of sparkle and colour, but her personality shone through both the music and her witty introductions. Prefacing the Mendelssohn by explaining that he wrote it when he was a mere 15 years old, she reckoned that it displayed a sense of the composer enjoying his new-found powers, and I suppose she knows a thing or two about finding fame at a young age. This is considered a true chamber piece, as the piano provides more than accompaniment, both instruments taking their turn in the limelight. The partnership between the players was very comfortable, demonstrated by Emma leaning into the piano from time to time. The central Andante was beautiful, with the solo clarinet creating a haunting melody, to which the piano was then gently added. The tempo and dynamics were perfectly controlled, the epitome of expressive music. The contrasting final movement, Allegro moderato, bore all the hallmarks of the clarinet and piano chatting to each other. There was also plenty of eye contact with the audience, as much as to say ‘guess what’s coming next!’ A series of false finishes added expectation and drama, and when the final flourish did arrive it was accompanied by a beaming smile. Music as communication.

The clarinet was John Ireland’s favourite woodwind instrument and his Fantasy Sonata is considered a masterpiece of the British clarinet repertoire. He began composing it in Guernsey, from where he managed to flee just before the German Occupation, and it was eventually completed in 1943. Emma introduced us to the meaning behind its movements: a depiction of waves and water as soldiers went off to war; the women saying prayers for their menfolk; the women getting on with their work and daily lives; the waging of war itself – this last apparently to be ‘grotesquely played’. It was indeed an emotionally-charged piece, starting with arresting high notes and tumultuous phrases, and ending with a sense of danger and sheer panic, by means of a menacing piano backing and discordant cries from the clarinet.

Following the interval, Emma had changed into a colourful, abstract tunic over her black leggings and knee boots, in a bid to bring us into the ‘psychedelic 60s’ via Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata in B flat. Unmistakably French, this work offers lots of contrast, with the first movement fast, jerky and strident, followed by repeated, dreamlike motifs in the second, passion-filled laments echoed by the piano in the third and sheer excitement in the fourth, with carefully poised rests giving it a quirky feel. After some jazzy Stravinsky we were then back into war territory. Pastoral was written while Arthur Bliss was serving in France in 1916, after hearing of his brother’s death in action. The only piece of his early work that Bliss kept, it evokes a love of the countryside and a longing to escape the horrors of war. It was played with an aching tenderness.

In another change of mood, the concert officially ended with Joseph Horovitz’s Two Majorcan Pieces. Straight away we were transported to the Mediterranean, with trills aplenty. The dance-like quality perfectly suited Emma Johnson’s stage presence, and it seemed to be over in a flash. Exuberant applause coaxed an encore; on announcing the piece – Gershwin’s Walking the Dog – there was a ripple of recognition and approval before the familiar melody fairly bounded along. It made a refreshing change to consider what the clarinet could offer, and we couldn’t have been in the hands of a better ambassador.