Clarinet Classics.
John Robert Brown
'Running a record label was the last thing on my mind!' exclaims Victoria Soames Samek, whose Clarinet Classics celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year. 'Every six months I would go round the publishers seeking new scores to add to my repertoire,' she says. 'One day I was in Boosey & Hawkes when Janis Susskind told me that Aaron Copland had just re-arranged his 1943 Violin Sonata for clarinet.' The piece, as yet unrecorded, had not yet received its UK premiere. 'You might be interested in this,' Susskind told her. 'I was exceedingly excited,' says Soames Samek. 'I booked the Purcell Room. With pianist Julius Drake I did a programme that included Copland and Les Six.'

'We tried to persuade Copland and the Copland Trust to give permission for me to record the sonata.' The process took time, to the point where Soames Samek was heavily pregnant with her daughter Lucy. 'We recorded it for the AVM Label,' she says. 'They paid. All was fine until I got a call from the studio. They were going bust!' The clarinettist struck a bargain with the studio. They had the master, which she bought.

Seeking a label for pressing and distribution, Soames Samek found that every label already had its own clarinet player. Eventually her brother, Nicolas Soames, said: 'Enough is enough. We're going to do it ourselves.' That Copland CD launched Clarinet Classics. 'The most wonderful start,' says Soames Samek. 'The record won a Sunday Times 'record of the year' recommendation from Paul Driver, in 1992. 'Terrifically encouraging,' she says.

Clarinet Classics continues to keep faith that the work of the greatest single-reed players is important. Soames Samek - a multi-tasker and champion delegator - is a clarinet professor at Trinity College of Music, at Guildhall School of Music and Drama Junior School, and at Goldsmiths, University of London. She serves on the executive committee of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society, undertakes private teaching, and organises various workshops as well as directing a single-reed summer school at Bath Spa University. She has three children: Alexander 21, who now drives a double-decker bus ('the only person in our whole family who's on a salary!'), Lucy, 17, who is learning the flute, and Tristan, aged seven, who has taken up the piano.

'I feel exceedingly privileged to have children,' says Soames Samek. 'My family life stops me from being completely obsessive about work and the clarinet.' Yet music is never far away. She met her husband, Richard ('long suffering'), at the Purcell School. 'We went to school together. He's a pianist. He now teaches piano, and accompanies.'

The first historical issue on Clarinet Classics was of the Danish clarinettist Aage Oxenvad (1884-1944) and the French clarinettist Louis Cahuzac (1880-1960), playing Nielsen chamber music, wherein Oxenvad is heard both in the Wind Quintet and Serenata in Vano, and Cahuzac plays the Concerto. Vast differences are apparent in the playing styles. 'That's where I started learning about historical recordings - an incredible revelation,' says Soames Samek. 'For instance, I learned what happens when you re-master at the wrong pitch. Making sure that the pitch is correct affects the clarinet tone; two or three Hertz make an incredible difference. Restoration has improved enormously, even in the last five years, when I look now at the restoration on the Kings of Swing, or Reginald Kell's recording, compared to going back to the Nielsen.'

Soames Samek acknowledges what she describes as 'incredible' support from her brother Nicolas, who runs Naxos AudioBooks. 'Naxos has been hugely supportive,' says Victoria. And in a true spirit of co-operation, her wind quintet, East Winds, has just made its first recording for Naxos, being an all-chamber music CD of works by Malcolm Arnold. She is also keen to credit her own team. 'Two crucial people are Malcolm McMillan and Simon Weir. Both are clarinettists. 'Malcolm McMillan has helped and advised me on historical projects. His knowledge in this area has been invaluable,' she says. 'Simon Weir, from The Classical Recording Company, always listens to any concerns I have and will spend as much time as it takes for me to feel the sound is right and true.'

How does a small record label cope with the current download mania? Surely this technology is a threat to the company's existence? 'Record labels these days cannot produce CDs and nothing else,' says Soames Samek. Clearly excited by digital progress, she now offers Clarinet Classics ringtones. 'The ever-increasing market is the download. We are delighted that we've been accepted onto iTunes. Now we're looking into making available unknown but important scores, online, as print-on-demand. A lot of fantastic repertoire does not get represented. I see the coming of these digital developments not as a threat, but more as an expansion of our activities. Currently we have 21 countries to which we distribute, including America, Australia and Japan. Now we've moved our export handling to Select in the UK. We are responding to demands, becoming more accessible,' says Soames Samek. 'In the Clarinet Classics catalogue are 52 items. We add about four each year.'

This year these include Colin Lawson on period C clarinet playing twelve sonatas for C clarinet and cello by Lefèvre, while clarinettist Peter Furniss with pianist David Leiher Jones celebrate 60 years of American music for their instruments. Clarinet Classics indeed.

First published in Classical Music magazine, March 31st 2007. Displayed here by kind permission of the editor.

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