PORTLAND — I’m not generally enthusiastic about music that stems from a political or social justice cause, no matter how admirable it may be. The newly unearthed composer usually bears out Sartre’s aphorism about there being “no undiscovered geniuses.”

Composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is the exception that proves the rule. She appears to have been passed over in the musical sweepstakes of the early 20th century in favor of men with considerably less talent. She even used a male pseudonym to enter competitions or have her work published. This after World War I!

Her Prelude, Allegro, Pastorale for Clarinet and Viola, played Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church by Julia Adams of the Portland String Quartet and clarinetist Charles Neidich, seems to me a work of real genius – fresh, emotionally profound and utilizing an idiom that is both contemporary and personal.

The British-American Clarke wrote the piece for her brother and his wife, who must have been talented musicians indeed if they were able to play it at all.

In her own, perhaps tongue-in-cheek words: “The whole thing is very unpretentious: a short unassuming little prelude; an Allegro I originally thought of calling a Toccata – as it gives both the players plenty to show what they can do. The subject is more or less ‘mirror writing,’ and in the coda the instruments are, in addition, continually crossing one another. There is a fugato section in the middle. The whole of the second movement should sound very spirited, and is, I think, quite effectively written for both parts. The third movement, Pastorale, is rather melancholy and nostalgic, ending in a very subdued way.”

The first movement reminded me of an undersea landscape with waving fronds of seaweed, the second, in its liveliness and invention, would not have been disowned by Stravinsky, and the third is an essay in desolation for a war that killed an entire generation.

Since I had not heard the work before, I can’t compare the performance by Adams and Neidich to anything else, but I don’t see how it could be excelled, in either technique or feeling for the material.

Neidich’s tone is the kind that makes one want to sign up to learn the clarinet, and his collaboration with Adams raises the question of why more music hasn’t been written for this perfect combination of instruments.

The program began with a charming performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4. The Hungarian-influenced final Presto had some Transylvanian echoes appropriate for Halloween.

Neidich joined the quartet for a performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]