À bout de bras


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Georges AperghisÀ bout de bras (1989)
for oboe and clarinet

Peter Veale, oboe
Carl Rosman, clarinet
Janet Sinica, video
Jan Böyng, editing
Stephan Schmidt, recording producer/editing

From time to time in the new music business one does—yes, it’s true—find oneself wishing to apologise to the audience for the piece one is about to perform. À bout de bras often falls into this category, although not because of any deficiencies in its quality: the sight of a large percentage of the audience recoiling at the ffff sliding microtonal beginning, having been lulled into a false sense of security by the lyrical/pastoral stereotype of the oboe and clarinet, is to Peter and me an all-too-familiar one. (Listeners may or may not wish to replicate the concert experience by turning the volume up to 11 and putting their fingers in their ears.) We once found ourselves in the position of having agreed to play the piece for an Arts Ministry function in Düsseldorf, and turning up to find a relatively small, reverberant room. Under the circumstances it seemed kindest to open a door and play the piece from the corridor.

Georges wrote À bout de bras for two particularly versatile musicians: oboist Jean-Claude Malgoire, perhaps more widely known as the director (until his death in 2018) of the Baroque ensemble La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy, and clarinettist Michel Portal, perhaps just as well known for his achievements in the jazz world although on disc he is also a brilliant exponent of the husky sheen of the classic French sound in the clarinet’s classical chamber repertoire (Brahms with Mikhail Rudy, Mozart with the Cherubini Quartet, Poulenc with Jacques Février). The original scoring is not the only option Georges accepts and there is also a published edition for two clarinets.

The title translates more or less as ‘at arm’s length’, although the French idiom is completely different from the English: for us Anglophones it denotes keeping something at a distance (to be fair, accidentally apt here), while the French colloquial usage denotes strong commitment to a challenging task, the metaphor coming from the effort required to carry a heavy object high above the head. Is there anything programmatic, then, in the high tessitura, the extreme dynamic level, or the clarinet’s three-octave upward glissando towards the end? Not necessarily.

Carl Rosman