As part of Music at Oxford’s 09/10 concert season, Emma Johnson (clarinet) and Pascal Rogé (piano) offered one of the most promising concert programmes I have seen for a while – from Weber and Brahms to Stravinsky and Copland, the range of music was impressive and the artists never sounded out of their depth.
The opening Silvana Variations by Weber were played with brimming enthusiasm, although it was at first difficult to gain a solid impression of Johnson’s character while she was dominating the hall by walking around centre-stage. This was rectified with the pleasant surprise of anecdotal information before each piece – a story about one of Weber’s premières being poorly attended due to one of the first hot-air balloon ascents gave the kind of informal atmosphere you’d hope for when attending a concert to both appreciate and learn something about the music.
The largest piece on the programme was Brahms’s first Clarinet Sonata, which the composer wrote after he was stunned by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld – an experience which lifted him out of a brief retirement. Johnson infused the piece with great energy and lyricism, although it is a ‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano’ as much as it is a ‘Clarinet Sonata’, and she was overbearing in places, unfortunately making some of the piano’s greatest passages inaudible.
Rogé was a fine accompanist throughout, and he fully seized the opportunity to display his own virtuosity with a piece for piano solo – La Cathédrale Engloutie from the first book of Préludes by Debussy. This was one of the most moving pieces of the night thanks to Rogé’s ability to evoke the image of the cathedral of Ys rising from the sea with its tolling bells, and he thus demonstrated his acclaimed affinity for French pianism.
The second half of the programme exemplified the pair’s light-hearted approach, particularly with their final piece, Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Originally written (and named) for a theatre specialising in performances aimed at children, they certainly performed with a child-like vigour, and this was complemented by a touching encore of Benny Goodman’s take on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 as a birthday treat for a young clarinettist in the audience.