The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was among Poulenc’s final works and, like his Oboe Sonata, it dates from the summer of 1962. He dedicated the Clarinet Sonata to the memory of Arthur Honegger, a fellow member of "Les Six," who had passed away in 1955. Instead of following classical German sonata form, Poulenc’s piece takes inspiration from the less rigid 18th-century French sonatas of Couperin and Rameau.
The oxymoronic tempo marking for the opening movement (Allegro tristamente) encompasses both the cheeky clarinet introduction and the wide-ranging main theme (which is reminiscent of Prokofiev), as well as the exquisite, nostalgia-tinged central section. Although Poulenc was to dedicate his valedictory Oboe Sonata (written just a few weeks later) to the memory of his friend Prokofiev, the lyrical spirit of the Russian composer also spills over into the serene interlude at the heart of the first movement of the Clarinet Sonata -- a poetic digression, with a touch of Satie, which flows along as a close musical sibling to the tender diversion Prokofiev placed at the center of the powerful "Montagues and Capulets" segment of his ballet Romeo and Juliet.
The wistful principal clarinet melody in the gentle Romanza which follows provides the essential thematic material from which the composer weaves his melancholy second movement. The finale finds Poulenc at his most rambunctious -- from percussive piano passages and impetuous clarinet commentary at the outset to the impertinent ending flourish.
Composer Kathy Henkel has written program notes for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Music/LA Festival, and writes liner notes for Pro Piano Records in New York.