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An innovative approach to Poulenc’s clarinet sonata

Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Poulenc on his Paris residence
Plaque commemorating the death of Francis Poulenc on his Paris residence
by PHGCOM, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license)

At last night’s Clarinet Department Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), one of the students performed the second movement from Francis Poulenc’s clarinet sonata. This was a memorial piece, composed in 1962 in recollection of Arthur Honegger, Poulenc’s colleague in Les Six. The middle movement is the most melancholic of the three, and last night the emotionality was enhanced through an interesting approach to performance.

The opening phrase was played into the body of the accompanying grand piano, whose dampers had been lifted to allow the strings to resonate. On my recording of Poulenc’s chamber works by the London Conchord Ensemble, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin gave this a very dry treatment, performing it as softly as possible, allowing for virtually no reverberation in any acoustic environment. I have not found any evidence that Poulenc had wished for last night’s approach; but it was highly effective, serving as a poignant gesture of the living left in loneliness by loved ones who have died.

This was the sort of effect that could only work in an intimate acoustic space like the SFCM Recital Hall. It is understandable if it never occurred to Poulenc. The sonata was given its first performance a few months after Poulenc’s death in Carnegie Hall. Clarinetist Benny Goodman, who had commissioned the piece, performed with Leonard Bernstein on piano. Carnegie would definitely not have had the acoustics for last night’s approach, but that approach certainly underscored the memorial intentions of the score and the sad fact that death had prevented Poulenc himself from hearing this music.