Emma Johnson

'The world's leading clarinettist' brings a touch of class to the Walled City Music Festival in Derry~Londonderry

This year's Walled City Music Festival came perilously close to simply not happening. When organisers turned up at Derry~Londonderry's Magee College campus, the festival's usual venue, they found maintenance work they had not been made aware of happening, rendering concerts impossible.

Cue mild panic, and a coruscating blog entry by influential classical shock-jock Norman Lebrecht ('Can this City of Culture be trusted to organise a drink in a bar?'). Ouch.

Undaunted, the Derry~Londonderry-born, US-based pianist Cathal Breslin, artistic director of the WCMF, upped sticks (and instruments) to First Derry Presbyterian Church, itself almost moribund from dry rot a decade ago, but now splendidly renovated.

Hardwood pew seats notwithstanding (standard issue in ecclesiastical venues), it's a super location for chamber music. The penultimate concert in this year's highly imaginative series features Emma Johnson, hailed by many as the world's leading clarinettist.

Johnson, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year, is technically a superb player, but there are plenty of those clogging the international recital circuit. What makes her different is her profound musicality, her ability to find the heart and soul of a composer's inspiration, and mediate it selflessly to an audience.

Her skills in this respect are perfectly showcased in Schumann's 'Op. 73 Fantasiestücke', where she glides effortlessly between the billowing lyricism characterising the opening movement, and the gentle wafts of melancholia that moderate its subtly shifting emotional landscape. In Johnson's rendering, the two merge gorgeously, imperceptibly one into the other.

Earlier, opening the programme, her treatment of a concertino by Tartini (arranged for clarinet by Gordon Jacobs) is an object lesson in how to make relatively slight music seem, momentarily at least, sharply attractive.

Johnson's trilled baroque embellishments of Tartini's melodic line are both tasteful and delectably clean technically: they burble with the sheer joy of playing her chosen instrument.

It's noticeable also in the Tartini how widely Johnson varies her dynamics, using shifts in volume to nuance and structure her presentation of the music. Like all the finest classical musicians, Johnson thinks in the longest musical paragraphs, with a clear and settled overview of the piece she's playing. It gives a rare security and satisfaction to a listener's journey through it.

Part one ends with Poulenc's 'Clarinet Sonata', a masterpiece written a year before the composer died in 1963 in Paris. Johnson rightly utilises a blunter, more constricted tone for the attacca of the opening movement.

A pinched nasality sharpens the effect of Poulenc's affrighted upward arpeggios, the music's jagged angularities no doubt emblematic of the composer's existential anxieties as death approaches, despite his devout Catholicism.

The sad, beautiful Romanza, the sonata's middle movement, has a keening quality mitigated by Johnson's velvety tonal quality. With the finale, though, it's back to the bustling, noisy boulevards that Poulenc loved so dearly. Johnson's playing here is brilliantly mercurial, full of mischief, acerbity and Parisian joie de vivre.

If nothing after the interval quite matches the impact of that stunning part one sequence, there's still plenty to relish musically. Finzi's 'Five Bagatelles' glow with mellow English pastoralism, Johnson is perkily observant in Stravinsky's succinct 'Three Pieces', and spins a luscious cantilena in a clarinet redaction of the famous 'Vocalise' by Rachmaninov.

Not even Johnson can make convincing music out of Giampieri's 'Il Carnevale di Venezia', however, a shamelessly virtuosic display piece which she dispatches in a blur of flying fingers. Benny Goodman's take on Paganini's '24th Caprice' is the jazzily entertaining encore.

Cork pianist Ciara Moroney accompanies beautifully throughout the evening, discreetly complementing Johnson's playing with her own tellingly sensitive contributions.

Overall this is an outstanding concert. A pity, therefore, that the audience isn't bigger (I counted about 40). Let's hope that the classical strand at next year's City of Culture celebrations is much more generously attended, and keeps the blog trolls silent.