The Sonata For Clarinet And Piano is without doubt one of the most marvellous of Saint-Saens' works. The Allegretto, in E flat major, is an elegant dialogue in 12/8 between Piano and Clarinet, whose theme develops as a series of questions and responses against the Piano's rocking or arpeggio accompaniment, very like an Opera aria. Is it fanciful to suggest that there is an echo of 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix' (the famous aria from Samson et Dalila) in bars 16 and 17 of this movement? The expressive possibilities of the Clarinet are brought out to the full - the whole range of the instrument is exploited; virtuoso, sensual or graceful - the Clarinet here plays all of these roles. An Allegro animato follows this Allegretto - it is a sonata scherzo, built around a gavotte theme, a playful reference to the 18th century, on which Saint-Saens was a noted expert, particularly as editor for Editions Durand of the complete works of Rameau and 'masters of the past'. The lento is very unusual - a slow lament in 3/2, in which Saint-Saens exploits first the dark, keening lower registers of the Clarinet and Piano and which culminates, after dramatic arpeggios, in a more rareified sphere. What emerges from this antique song is a deeply sad, even painful, threnody: is it a kind of musical epitaph?
The last movement, Molto allegro, reveals another side to Saint-Saens - it is sparkling salon music, full of contrast and vivacity, urbane, bubbly, joyous and gently bantering. The sonata ends with a return to the there which opened the first movement - a remarkable structural effect, rounding off perfectly the work of the composer.
Christophe Mirambeau (translation David Bray)