For those familiar with the British-American composer and violist Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), the photograph of the young Victorian beauty, with flowing sleeves, dark hair, and a faraway look in her eyes, personifies the uniquely sensitive, rhapsodic, and nostalgic qualities of her best-known works. This photograph did indeed grace the program leaflet of “One Little Whiff of Success,” a concert of Clarke’s chamber music interspersed with commentary and historic interview clips, fittingly presented by Liane Curtis and the Rebecca Clarke society in the Brandeis University library’s “Rapaporte Treasure Room” last Sunday afternoon. A repeat performance of these gracefully rendered works with commentary on the intriguing woman behind them will take place this Friday, May 3rd, at Follen Church in Lexington.
Next to the portrait of the moody romantic, however, was a white-haired one of Clarke in later life. This was the woman—tartly good-humored, matter-of-fact, very British, humble yet scornful of people’s prejudices—whose voice we heard on clips from a 1976 interview with journalist Robert Sherman (who will be Friday’s special guest). According to Curtis, the concert was originally designed to include a theatrical presentation of Clarke’s life, a plan thwarted by copyright issues with Clarke’s estate. However, I appreciated the lack of theatrics. Hearing Clarke’s voice without also hearing too much editorializing or hypothesizing on her feelings and motivations, provided a nice balance and context for the music, which, and rightly so, was the focal point of the afternoon. Examining a work’s context and letting music speak for itself are two sides of the appreciation coin—with lesser-known composers, it can be easy to give too much weight to the former. Why isn’t Rebecca Clarke a bigger name as a composer? It’s fairly obvious: her output was small and concentrated in the genres of chamber music (especially that including the viola) and song. Why didn’t she write more? Well, it’s true that she wasn’t exactly showered with encouragement as a woman composer of the early 20th-century, and that very few of her works were published in her lifetime. No one ever said being a composer was easy, or that life was fair.
Fortunately, Clarke has gained a group of posthumous advocates in the Rebecca Clarke society, which is great news for chamber music lovers. Sunday’s performances were universally excellent, and the works chosen, representing a cross section of her instrumental output, were varied enough in style and character that my interest never flagged. The mother-daughter team of pianist Mariel Bossert and violinist Laura Bossert presented Lullaby, an early work of elegant simplicity (fittingly written with the memory of maternal warmth in mind) and Midsummer Moon, a passionately evocative virtuoso rhapsody. The Bosserts delivered both with sensitivity and aplomb; Laura Bossert was equally poised and emotive in the warm sul G melody that opened Lullaby and in Midsummer Moon’s gymnastics. The latter, a sort of tone poem, took full advantage of the violin’s range and colors while never sacrificing feeling to empty virtuosity. As a violin concert piece, I’ll take Midsummer Moon over Sarasate any day.
Noralee Walker, viola, and Todd Brunel, clarinet, performed Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, a later work in which Curtis hears a Stravinskyan austerity. I found Walker’s and Brunel’s interaction as chamber musicians to be one of the high points of the afternoon. They created a finely calibrated sound world in the Prelude, blending their instruments’ muted qualities with masterful sensitivity. They navigated the intricately fitted, angular lines of the Allegro with energy and flair, and brought out the unexpectedly dark qualities of the Pastorale, which, belying its name, is murky and full of disturbing shifts in harmony.
The first half concluded with a true find: Nocturne for two violins and piano, an early work just discovered in 2000 and premiered in 2003. Pianist Robert Merfeld joined Laura Bossert and her student Anya Shemetyeva for a riveting performance of this deeply romantic work. The Nocturne was interesting in construction, beginning with the two violins, in octaves, repeating a sort of ostinato melody. In the middle section, they broke apart to converse and overlap, joining again in harmony at the end. All three players were marvelously attuned to the subtleties of melody, phrasing, and wholeness that made this work so special.
Walker returned with pianist Scott Nicholas for the second half. I’ll bid my heart be still was Clarke’s last instrumental piece, a simple arrangement of a Scottish folk melody for viola with piano ornamentation, dedicated to her husband, Scottish pianist James Friskin. (And lest it be thought that marriage stifled Clarke’s career, it is worth noting that their marriage took place when they were both in their 50s, and that Friskin encouraged her to resume composing; Clarke evidently stopped for reasons of her own.) The final entry in the tour of Clarke’s compositional life was the Sonata for Viola and Piano, her award-winning and most widely performed work, the impressionist staple of the viola sonata repertoire. Hearing it performed alongside her other compositions made me hear it in a fresh light, as a work of youth, energy and idealism. Walker and Nicholas’s interpretation (as standard repertoire, one can talk about the Viola Sonata in terms of interpretation!) highlighted the impetuoso quality of the work: a sense of constant movement, sometimes percussive and sometimes flowing, tied the work together.