Following their tussle over the Top Ten Clarinet Concertos, harmony was restored as Elisabeth and Mark debated their favourite clarinet sonatas. With Mozart out of the picture (he never composed a clarinet sonata!), it left the field clear for other composers. We hope you enjoy their playlist, which features some of our Clarinet Month interviewees.

1 Brahms: Clarinet Sonata no. 2 in E flat major, Op.120 no. 2

We both had Brahms’ Second Clarinet Sonata at the top of our respective lists. It’s one of his late masterpieces, written for Richard Mühlfeld, the clarinettist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra whose playing coaxed Brahms out of compositional retirement. The E flat sonata has a wonderfully autumnal opening, but it’s the second movement I adore (from 8’15”), almost like one of his Hungarian Dances, flowing with a halting lilt. The piano writing here is especially virtuosic too. Here’s a recording of Michael Collins partnered by Mikhail Pletnev. [Mark]

 

2 Saint-Saëns: Sonata in E flat major for clarinet and piano, Op.167

During the last year of his life, Saint-Saëns intended to compose sonatas for all woodwind instruments to enhance their repertoire – successfully, as it later turned out – yet, he could only finish the ones for the oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Dedicated to Auguste Périer, Saint-Saëns’ Romantic Clarinet Sonata has the traditional Classical format of four movements. An opening Allegretto and a playful Scherzo lead to a thoughtful (or even depressing) E flat minor Lento, consisting of mainly half and later quarter notes, though they can’t really break free from the earlier dark mood. The Molto allegro fourth movement follows without a pause and gives the soloist the chance to show off their virtuosity. [Elisabeth]

 

3Poulenc: Clarinet Sonata

It was the Parisian critic Claude Rostand who described Francis Poulenc as “half monk, half rascal” and both sides of his character can be heard within bars of each other in the 1962 Clarinet Sonata. The first movement switches between the impetuous and the sly, the dreamy and the impish. A wistful Romanza is then followed by an outrageously cheeky finale, but even here, Poulenc stops to paint great arcs of melody. A favourite showpiece for every clarinettist. [Mark]

 

4Brahms: Clarinet Sonata no. 1 in F minor, Op.120 no. 1

Like his Second Sonata, Brahms dedicated the First to “Fräulein Klarinette”, his nickname for Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms had previously vowed to retire from composing, but after being blown away by Carl Maria von Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto, he decided to write his sonatas for this wonderful instrument – who could hold it against him?! From the first few bars, you are overwhelmed by this rich and sentimental music. Brahms and the clarinet: we should be forever grateful that he came back from his retirement. [Elisabeth]

 

 

5Mendelssohn: Clarinet Sonata in E flat major

Mendelssohn’s is perhaps not a truly great clarinet sonata, but it was composed when he was only 15 years old. Despite quite routine outer movements, the central Andante is beautiful – a lilting pastoral tune in 6/8 which you can imagine being a shepherd’s song played on his pipe. Along with Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, it was one of my favourite early pieces to play and is performed here by Emma Johnson. [Mark]

 

6Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op.73

I know, technically it’s not a sonata, but we’ll come to this later… The Fantasiestücke are extremely exhausting for every clarinettist. Although it’s not as technically challenging as other works, it lasts approximately 13 minutes, there’s no break for the soloist and Schumann even wrote attacca between the movements. No wonder, this work is on the list of audition pieces for most conservatoires. As suggested in the title, it starts in a dreamy mood, resolving in a livelier second movement, before Schumann pushes the player to their limit in the finale with “schneller und schneller” (faster and faster). [Elisabeth]

 

7Debussy: Première rhapsodie

So, Debussy’s Première rhapsodie cannot quite be categorised as a sonata, but I allowed Elisabeth her Schumann Fantasiestücke, so we’re even. Debussy composed it in 1910 as a solo de concours (a test piece) for the Paris Conservatoire, later orchestrating it. The rhapsodie was soon recognised as a masterpiece, requiring great contrasts in tonal colours. Gervase de Peyer, former principal of the LSO, was expert in French repertoire. [Mark]

 

8Bernstein: Clarinet Sonata

Leonard Bernstein composed his Clarinet Sonata for David Oppenheim, whom he met at Tanglewood, Boston. It is written in two movements, the first of which is sinuous and slinky. But in the second, Lenny can’t resist his jazzy syncopations and riffs. [Mark]

 

9Horovitz: Clarinet Sonatina

The second movement of the Horovitz Sonatina once brought me third prize in a competition. I had to play it by heart – the first time for me – and completely missed one bar about halfway through! My accompanist and I cheated our way around it, but who knows what could have been if I hadn’t forgotten this D natural…

Anyway, it is a lighthearted piece influenced by Jazz and other popular music, while still following the traditional pattern of the three movement division. [Elisabeth]

 

10Hindemith: Clarinet Sonata

It was Hindemith’s ambition to write at least one sonata for each orchestral instrument after becoming aware of the lack of repertoire for educational purposes when he started teaching at the Berlin Academy of Music in 1927. He understood the different instruments better than most composers and his Clarinet Sonata gives the soloist the chance to show their tone, style, rhythmic stability and finesse. And the best thing, you can play it as an amateur yet it still sounds impressive! [Elisabeth]