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Interview, Berginald Rash and Fiona Gryson on 'Dathanna'

Berginald Rash (clarinet) and Fiona Gryson (harp)Well, what's your favourite work composed for clarinet and harp? Don't worry: I couldn't name one either. But as this new album from Irish duo Berginald Rash and Fiona Gryson shows, it's a truly magical sonic combination. Not only do plenty of works take on a new life when transcribed for these two instruments, but composers over the years have been drawn to the unique combination of timbres as something special in its own right. 

Built around the 'salon' style of music that flourished in France in the Romantic era, Dathanna is an absolute treasure-trove of a recital (even if most of those treasures are borrowed from elsewhere) - rarely-heard works by clarinettist-composers from the French Romantic period, arrangements of evergreen favourites by Satie, Ravel and others, and a complete transcription of Saint-Saëns's gorgeous clarinet sonata. Pride of place, though, goes to Bochsa's Thème et variations - an enviably flexible piece written 'for clarinet or violin, with harp or piano accompaniment'!

I spoke to Berginald and Fiona about the works on this album, how it (and their duo) came into being, and what the process of transcription actually entails in practice. 

I suppose the first question that springs to mind is: Why this period of music? You mention the ‘inspiration’ (if that’s the right word) of the big pause in musical life in 2019 and 2020, but what was it that led you to focus particularly on the 19th-century French salon soundworld during that time?

Berginald: I don't know that it was an intentional decision to focus on the 19th-century French salon soundworld per se, but more of the experience of being in these small, cozy spaces celebrating beautiful music with friends and family - new and old - and feeling completely enveloped by the sounds being made. There is something about this imagery that for me feels very warm and deeply personal and I think this album is a gentle reflection of that ethos. We had been playing together already and really sort of discovered a love of the pairing of the two instruments when we participated in the Boyne Music Festival playing works by Skaila Kanga and Paul Reade among others.

Fiona: We were thinking about different ideas and themes and what we wanted the album to become. Berginald had a few suggestions of pieces that he thought would work with the clarinet and harp as we had played together for different concerts and festivals and we began talking and experimenting with various works and what we wanted to capture in the music and it just grew from there, seeing what we liked and what we thought would work. It just so happened that this period of work really suited and that developed into the album. We were working on the album throughout 2019, before the pandemic so we didn’t know what was coming. The pause came in 2020 after most of the artistic decisions were made; we changed a few pieces in 2020 but the repertoire had largely been chosen by that stage and some of it had already been recorded.

Berginald: I think in retrospect there's something to be said about that lockdown period - the isolation, social distancing, uncertainty and precarity of the period which can be heard in the quest for intimacy and connection I think people might hear in the album. There's a comfort and safety in this era of works because of the communal aspect of its consumption.

Fiona: It makes it all the more special and meaningful afterwards. It was something musical and tangible to work on and focus on at that time when so much of our work was cancelled and uncertain. 

What’s the significance of the Irish term ‘dathanna’ that is the album’s title?

Fiona: Dathanna is the Irish word for ‘colours’. We felt it was important to use the Irish language with me being from Ireland, both of us living in Ireland, recording in Ireland and it's a beautiful word with musical significance too.

Berginald: Yeah, like Fiona said it meaning 'colours' in Irish really leant itself beautifully to the elements that we were hoping to capture - the colours of the clarinet and harp both individually and together in concert, the subtle shades and hues that can be reflected and shared through this pairing and that of the works themselves which are so evocative and tonally rich. It was, for me, a no-brainer to centre Dathanna as the title. It felt right. It also didn't hurt that I was, at the time, getting ready to become an Irish citizen. Maybe it's a nod to that beautiful embrace.

How did your duo first come into being, and what kind of repertoire did you perform to begin with?

Berginald: I blame Fiona.

Fiona: Well, Berginald and I first met in 2016 at the Great Music in Irish Houses chamber music festival in Dublin which is now Dublin International Chamber Music Festival. We were both in different chamber ensembles at the time. I was performing with flautist Katie Hyland…

Berginald: Competing to the death - joking. I'm kidding

Fiona: ... and Berginald was in a Bruch trio with pianist Annalisa Monticelli and cellist Anna Marcossi. We didn’t decide to play together immediately. A few months later, I was putting together a concert and my Mam requested I perform The Victorian Kitchen Garden Suite by Paul Reade as she loves it. I knew I needed to get in touch with a clarinettist so I asked Bergie if he’d be interested and thankfully he said yes. We started rehearsing together and really enjoyed that and then the performance went really well so the rest is history.

Berginald: Essentially the music we started off playing was written for this combination of instruments. Like Fiona said, Paul Reade's Victorian Kitchen Garden Suite was our first piece together, but since then we've ventured further afield including transciptions of works like when we first played at Cornstown House’s Music on the Farm series and included the Coucou from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals.

Is there much music actually written ‘natively’ for clarinet and harp?

Berginald: That's a great question.

Fiona: There is some when you look for it.

Berginald: Like Reger's Albumblatt and of course Skaila Kanga for whom the Paul Reade was written, she wrote a duo for clarinet and harp - Six American Sketches. Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s Amplétude. There's more music out there that we've yet to discover but I wouldn't say there's an abundance or plethora of choices. Fortunately, we've developed a good ear and keen eye for works that might be well suited for adaptation.

Fiona: and we're looking forward to exploring more of these works and new music. We've been approached by a few composers who’d like to write for us which is really exciting!

Satie’s Gymnopédies are among his best-loved works, particularly No. 1 (though personally I’ve always preferred No. 3!). What is it about these three simple little miniatures that captivates people?

Berginald: I think it's the simplicity of the melody and its singability and repetitiveness that make them particularly endearing. It's very comforting and written in such a way that one can sit back and easily listen, like musical wallpaper.

Fiona: I would agree with that, except maybe the wallpaper. They’re beautiful pieces and very tranquil. Gymnopédie No.1 is also one of my dad's favourite pieces of music and is one of the reasons we included them on the album. Although they were originally composed as solo piano pieces, they work very well on the clarinet and harp.

Berginald: Kinda like this surge in nostalgia and the sense of comfort and safety that we feel with the familiar - like when we rewatch a show - the Gymnopédies I think provide that. They're sparsely written with harp playing more or less block chords with a spread chord here and there and the clarinet playing a tuneful melody that's both attractive and kinda langsam, sad, reserved. I think they speak to the human condition of longing and repose, striving and reflecting. They're very human pieces.

Fiona: The way the chords were played was very deliberately thought out. Whether I played them as block chords or rippled was carefully considered. I was trying to balance keeping the sparsity and simplicity of the piece but also the resonance of the harp and creating some contrasts and musical moments. My harp mentors, Denise Kelly-McDonnell, Irina Zingg and Clíona Doris all helped me to consider and think about different ways of approaching transcriptions for harp.

How readily do piano parts translate to the harp? Presumably it’s not simply a case of playing the piano part as-is - how much adaptation was involved?

Berginald: That's all you Fiona.

Fiona: It really depends on the piece. Some require more adaptation than others. I always tried to bring out what the composers intended, to the best of my knowledge and ability, while working out what would sound and work best on the harp with the clarinet and what was feasible and achievable in terms of pedalling and the music. Even when I’d play the same notes as is in the piano score, I had to think, as a harpist, about the texture and how best to achieve it on the harp, for instance, I’d try various fingerings, pedalling and different ways of playing a series of notes, chords, arpeggios and passages of music to create and bring out sounds I wanted and to find a balance with the clarinet. There’s often a lot going on and a lot to consider.

Berginald: I can tell you that Fiona was very meticulous in preparing the parts in a way that reflected the composer's intent while maintaining the character of the piece and the suitability of it on the harp. Only one of the pieces was written for harp so what she manages to pull off is an incredible feat.

Fiona: Thank you.

Berginald: My parts by-in-large were written for clarinet with the exception of a few pieces, but only one of them was for the harp, the Bochsa, and her treatment and voicing of the chords, her ‘touch’ as it were, is superb.

I must admit some of the composers featured here - clarinettists Cahuzac and Giampieri, and harpist Bochsa - were rather unfamiliar to me. Is their relative obscurity today partly because they were so focused on writing for their own specific instruments - a little like the great Romantic guitarist-composers, today really only known by guitarists?

Fiona: I'd say that's fair to say. Bochsa is renowned within the harping community. His legacy and music is highly influential but may not be as well known to other musicians.

Berginald: That probably has a lot to do with it. In the case of Cahuzac he was more than just a clarinettist. He was a giant among pedagogues of the clarinet and so his influence musically on the way we play the clarinet, I believe, had to influence his writing and as such be celebrated and revered amongst clarinettists. I'm not sure how much music he wrote for other instruments beyond the clarinet, which could have a large impact on his notoriety and reach. I'd say this piece by Cahuzac is having a bit of a renaissance in that I've heard it performed dozens of times since I discovered it but haven't seen or heard any of his other works in recital or concert. I'd also say a lot of their writing was from a didactic point of view and served that educational purpose. The works we do have and the studies that were written, much like the Paris Conservatoire's solo de concours, remained amongst the players and within those specialist communities. It's funny how history has a way of elevating some works and composers over others.

Berginald Rash (clarinet), Fiona Gryson (harp)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC