Who was Finzi – was he a clarinettist? I have heard colleagues say this concerto, with its mellifluous tones and colours, is Finzi’s finest work…what other works have you played of Finzi’s, that we may look out for?
Gerald Finzi was an early twentieth century composer, with the bulk of his output being vocal works. His three brothers and his first music teacher all perished in the first world war, and this, undoubtedly, influenced his musical style.
Although Finzi was not a clarinettist, he was inspired to write for the instrument by the playing of Pauline Juler, the dedicatee of both the concerto, and his Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. Most players will have come across the Bagatelles for their grade exams, myself included.
Pauline Juler was a pupil of Frederick Thurston, and it was Thurston that premiered the concerto for clarinet and string orchestra. Thurston was the pre-eminent British player of his day, having played in the BBC symphony orchestra from its inception, and before that in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
Finzi was originally commissioned to write a piece for string orchestra for the 1949 Hereford Three Choirs festival, but was able to persuade the organiser to accept a concerto instead. This background probably explains the why the clarinet is partnered by a string orchestra, and why the string writing is no mere accompaniment.
Listening in rehearsal, the melodies of the Finzi seem to entice us into an Agatha Christie type of adventure, what mysteries have you enjoyed discovering in this piece that we can listen out for?
There is one clarinet entry near the start of the slow movement which can’t be heard until the volume of the note rises sufficiently above the accompanying strings - a seamless dove-tailing.
There are some lovely chamber music moments between the soloist and string sections, are there any particularly special moments for you?
I enjoy the pizzicato accompaniment to the clarinet melody near the start of the last movement. I’m reminded of radio programme theme tunes of the nineteen fifties.
There are also some moments of exuberant brilliance…what other concertos does it remind you of?
The clarinet concertos of Weber come to mind, but Finzi’s exuberance has a much more emotional element to it.
You are an instrument repairer as well as a clarinettist, has this given you an even greater understanding of your instrument and its capabilities?
Allied with my interest in acoustics, it’s probably made me more aware of the shortcomings of the clarinet in its current form. The tuning of instruments has improved over the years, but, arguably at the expense of their efficiency. Players are often struck by how ‘free blowing’ some older designs are, and by the tone and pitch variation that can be achieved with less effort.
Can you tell me a little about the reed used on the clarinet - what plant does it come from? What country does it grow? Are there different types of reed used?
Although synthetic reeds have improved considerably in recent years, the material of choice is still arundo donax cane. This plant is native to the Mediterranean basin, and the middle east. I believe that the Camargue area is where most French cane is harvested from.
Where does the clarinet evolve from, is it the recorder or madrigal, and how and when did this happen?
Its pre-cursor was the chalumeau. Like the clarinet, this had a single reed coupled to a cylindrical bore, but was limited in its pitch range to just over an octave to enable all tone holes to be coverable by the fingers without the need for keywork. The clarinet would have developed as a result of adapting the chalumeau using keywork to extend its pitch range, enabling a contiguous second register to be achievable. The instrument maker, J.C. Denner of Nuremberg is generally considered to have developed the first clarinets between 1690 and 1700.
Finally, who are your other favourite clarinet composers? Who are your inspirational clarinettists?
They would have to be Mozart, Brahms and Weber.
The player I most admired in my youth was Jack Brymer, and I first heard him play on the promotional record that came with my first Boosey & Hawkes plastic Regent clarinet, back in 1965.
Current players would have to include Michael Collins, Andrew Marriner and David Campbell.