Ensemble 360

Upper Chapel, Sheffield
Friday 6 October 2023, 1.00pm / 7.00pm

£10 UC, PIP & DLA
£5 Students & Under 35s

Past Event

DEBUSSY Premiere rhapsodie (8’)
YORK BOWEN Clarinet Sonata (16’)
HARRISON Drifting Away (5’)
WEBER Grand Duo Concertant (21’) 

Praised by International Record Review as “an eloquent and impassioned clarinettist [whose] playing is full-blooded and committed”, Robert Plane, the newest member of Ensemble 360, has been a remarkable addition to this highly regarded Ensemble. 

Debussy’s impressionistic Premiere rhapsodie, performed by Rob and pianist Tim Horton, moves from a dreamy opening to a virtuosic conclusion. The pair will also perform Drifting Away, the work of Pamela Harrison, an often overlooked English composer who Rob has done much to champion. The concert concludes with Weber’s celebrated duo marked by soaring melodies and dazzling cadenzas. 

Ticket holders are invited to stay for an informal talk from Rob about Pamela Harrison, who features in the concert.

DEBUSSY Claude, Première Rapsodie for Clarinet and Piano

The test pieces specially composed for the final exams at the Paris Conservatoire have something of a bad reputation. Many of them are routine competition showpieces but sometimes a work of much more lasting importance was written for these occasions. Such is the case with Debussy’s Première Rapsodie, completed in January 1910 for the clarinet concours at the Conservatoire that summer (Debussy also dashed off a sight-reading test for the same competition, published as his Petite pièce for clarinet and piano). Debussy himself was a member of the jury and he found most of the players unsatisfactory in the Rapsodie. However, the eventual winner, Vandercruyssen, impressed him. Debussy wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand that Vandercruyssen ‘played by heart, and like a great musician’. A year later, Debussy prepared the better-known version of the piece for clarinet and orchestra, but the original with piano is superbly written for both instruments. The clarinettist David Pino has claimed, with justification, that the Première rapsodie was ‘the first major work for solo clarinet written in the twentieth century’.

It opens in a mood of stillness (marked ‘Rêveusement lent’ – ‘dreamily slow’), with the piano adding gentle momentum in the accompaniment after a few bars, and the clarinet – instructed to play pianissimo but also ‘sweetly’ and ‘penetrating’ – introducing a languorous theme that gradually becomes more animated. A sudden speeding up introduces a more capricious idea that is briefly stopped in its tracks by a series of trills and a return to earlier music. But the faster speed soon returns, starting with rumbling low notes on the piano and a series of upward flourishes on the clarinet. This gives way to a new section marked ‘Modérément animé (‘Moderately animated) and ‘playful’, a passage that quite brilliantly exploits the possibilities of the clarinet, especially its ability to play rapid figurations and lyrical lines. A return to the slower music gives way, finally, to a thrilling conclusion.

What makes this such an outstanding work is that Debussy combines extremely idiomatic writing – appropriate for a piece that was intended to demonstrate a player’s technical command – with musical ideas that have memorable substance. On 16 January 1911 the clarinettist Paul Mimart (to whom the work was dedicated) gave the first performance in a concert, at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, in one of the concerts promoted by the Société musicale indépendante. According to Debussy’s biographer Léon Valas, another performance took place at the end of 1911 in Russia, and it was greeted by the audience with confusion. A baffled Debussy wrote to a friend: ‘Surely this piece is one of the most immediately pleasing I have ever written!’

© Nigel Simeone

YORK BOWEN Edwin, Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op.109

Allegro moderato 
Allegretto poco scherzando 
Finale. Allegro molto 

York Bowen was a virtuoso pianist (in 1925 he made the first ever recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto) and had a parallel career as a prolific composer whose output included instrumental works written for many distinguished soloists, among them violinist Fritz Kreisler, oboist Léon Goossens, violist Lionel Tertis and horn player Denis Brain. When York Bowen heard the clarinettist Pauline Juler give the first performance of Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles at one of the National Gallery Concerts in January 1943, he was immediately inspired to compose a work for her. The result was the Clarinet Sonata in F minor, given its premiere by Juler and the composer later that year. 


Starting with a wide-ranging theme for the clarinet (extending over two and a half octaves), this vibrant, lyrical work explores the technical possibilities of the clarinet with consummate skill. The second theme is closely related to the first, and the movement ends with a coda based on the work’s opening. The Scherzetto is a capricious counterpart to the first movement and elements of it are also heard at the start of the finale, marked Allegro molto. This is a rondo in which music from the opening movement is also recalled before an imposing coda brings this remarkable post-romantic sonata to a powerful close.  


© Nigel Simeone 

HARRISON Pamela, Drifting Away (for clarinet and piano)

Pamela Harrison studied at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano), and she composed several important works during the Second World War, including a String Quartet first performed in 1941 at the National Gallery Concerts. She wrote several important works for clarinet, inspired in part by a warm friendship with Jack Brymer for whom she composed a rugged and dramatic Clarinet Sonata in 1953, following this with a Clarinet Quintet in 1956. Drifting Away dates from two decades later: it was first performed by Brymer in 1975 at Sherbourne School. The title was derived from lines by W.B. Yeats: 

I heard the old, old men say 
All that’s beautiful drifts away 
Like the waters. 


Appropriately enough, this tender and evocative work, exquisitely crafted, was played by Brymer at the memorial service for Pamela Harrison in 1990.  


© Nigel Simeone 

WEBER Carl Maria Von, Grand Duo Concertant in E flat Op.48

Allegro con fuoco 
Andante con moto 
Rondo. Allegro 

Weber’s own diaries contain a wealth of information about when he composed this work. The first movement to be written was the Rondo finale, completed in Munich on 5 July 1815 and a note from a few days later mentions sketches “for the sonata with clarinet and piano”. By 19 July Weber had also written the slow movement, describing it as an “Adagio”. It wasn’t for another year that he turned his attention to the first movement – noting in Berlin on 5 November that the “First movement of the Duo in E flat was written down”, and finally on 8 November “Allegro in E flat for the Clarinet and Piano Duo finished.” The work was published by Schlesinger in Berlin six months later, Weber noting that he received printed copies on 19 June 1817.  


What is remarkable about this work, given its rather fragmented composition history, is that the finished piece has such concentration and coherence. An early review in the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung was full of praise: “The whole piece has an original and fiery spirit as well as tender heartfelt feelings; a thorough development of ideas comes without any pedantry … The harmonic and melodic aspects of each movement are beautifully balanced against each other and both instruments are treated with a perfect knowledge of what each can do.” 


The ebullient and virtuoso writing for the two instruments in is one of the glories of the Grand Duo. It was conceived as a real partnership for clarinet and piano, with neither part dominating the proceedings. The results are very rich melodically but also extremely successful in terms of Weber’s handling of large-scale forms. Though the work was called Grand Duo concertant when it was published, it’s interesting to note from Weber’s diaries that he referred to this substantial three-movement work at least once as a “Sonata”. 


© Nigel Simeone