Clarinet Tone Talk: Jack Brymer, English master clarinetist

Image Credit Kevin Geary Portraits

jack brymer clarinet toneJack Brymer (27 January 1915 – 15 September 2003), was a British clarinetist, born in South Shields.

This is the third post in the series "Tone Talk", samples and commentary on various clarinet tones from around the world. All discussion here needs to be understood in that context.

Any comments I write here are not necessarily criticisms; they are attempts to describe in detail what one player's tone sounds like to me. Tastes will vary. I mainly offer my constantly evolving opinion and description of what I hear. I also try to analyze how one tone or another is achieved, through the experiments I have done in my own playing.

Brymer's tone has always impressed me. Of the English clarinetists (that I know of) I believe he is my favorite.

The only comment I would make is that his tone occasionally slips into the "flabby" or "pot-bellied" spreadiness which is characteristic of English clarinet tone.

When I play loudly, I am careful to voice the note with a "point" in my air, which I feel as a lifting of my soft palette. If I play loudly with an open throat and little or no voicing, it results in a similar sound to the "pot-bellied" quality I hear in Brymer's sound.

Mozart Concerto movt. 1 sample-

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Mozart Concerto movt. 2 sample-

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Mozart Concerto movt. 3 sample-

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From Wikipedia:

The son of a builder, Jack Brymer started his working life as teacher. In 1947, on the recommendation of professional musicians who had played with Brymer during wartime military service, Sir Thomas Beecham invited him to audition as principal clarinetist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to succeed Reginald Kell. Brymer held the post until 1963 and, together with Gwydion Brooke (bassoon), Gerald Jackson (flute) and Terence MacDonagh (oboe), became part of the celebrated "Royal Family" of principal woodwind players with the RPO.[1] When he left the RPO, he become a co-principal in the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1963-1971) and principal in the London Symphony Orchestra (1971-1986).

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20 comments for “Clarinet Tone Talk: Jack Brymer, English master clarinetist

  1. Chris Allen
    November 1, 2011 at

    All interesting comments.

    I also studied with Colin Bradbury at the RCM from 1972-5; he was a superb teacher but I do agree that his sound was not ‘up there’ with some of the other ‘older’ players.
    My heroes from my schooldays were undoubtedly Jack Brymer and Gervase de Peyer – very different, but both with such a lot to offer.
    Later I encountered Bernard Walton – now, that was a wonderfully fruity sound often heard on 50’s/60’s Philharmonia recordings – when they were one of the best orchestras in the world.
    All these players came at a time when there really was an ‘English’ clarinet sound – for much of the time it was possible to identify particular orchestras from hearing just a few notes from the principal players!
    These days it is my belief – sadly – that there is no longer such a thing as and ‘English’ clarinet sound (or even French or German) as, with such ‘cross pollenation’ at the current time, we have only a rather bland kind of ‘Euro sound’ – yet another aspect of Britain that has become lost (along with many aspects of its national pride).
    Most present day clarinettists – with the possible exception of Andrew Marriner – leave me cold, I’m sorry to say.
    They may well have enviable techniques – and, occasionally, egos the size of bankers’ bonuses! – but I have no wish to be be blown out of my seat by the hard and abrasive sounds that seem to have become fashionable!

    • November 6, 2011 at

      Hi Chris. I think the clarinet sound will continue to go through styles and phases, even the homogeneous international style. What do you think of Jon Manasse’s sound?

  2. andre
    February 1, 2011 at

    He sounds like Hautbois (oboa) not like a clarinet actually.but ok

    • February 5, 2011 at

      Interesting comment, Andre. Are you an oboist?

  3. October 12, 2010 at

    No problem David, it's a pleasure and great to read the postings……..Ian

    • Simon Cross
      October 14, 2010 at

      I read somewhere on the web that Jack Brymer used the Vandoren Jazz Band mouthpiece with a very wide opening – does anyone know if that is true?

      • February 5, 2011 at

        Sorry to respond so late, Simon, but I will see if I can find out.

  4. October 11, 2010 at

    So interesting to read this discussion on Jack Brymer. I heard him as a boy and for me his sound was the clarinet. He became my inspiration to play. I was so fortunate to study with him, play a double concerto with in 1986 and visited him shortly before his death. A great man. His final words to me was 'do you think people will remember me?' I wish he could read this conversation. He use to say there are many technicians but very few musicians – so true. Jack was far from flawless technically but, in my opinion had the 'sound.'

    • October 11, 2010 at

      Hello Ian- What a wonderful historical perspective you offer, from a personal point of view. Thanks you for your contribution to the memory of a great clarinetist.


  5. John Peacock
    September 27, 2010 at

    First, full disclosure: I'm a Brit who grew up when Brymer was God. Because of that, he always will be to an extent. But I think I can also now listen to him objectively. I don't know how to interpret the "belly" term exactly, but I would accept that Brymer didn't always live up to his own standards: like a lot of 1010 players, there could be a harshness and a feeling of surface gloss without full depth in the tone (more rarely with him than any other 1010-ers, however). I think I became more aware of this after I bought a pair of 1010s and realised how hard I was finding it to get a really warm sound on them.

    But we're talking sound ideals, and I would still contend that when you hear the sound that Brymer produced when working at his best, you have a realized tonal concept that is hard (impossible?) to fault – certainly a sound that very few players today are capable of creating. The fact that he didn't do it 100% of the time isn't relevant: once you've heard what's possible even a few times, that sets the standard. And while I could accept the argument of a player who criticises and says "I choose not to play like that", my counter-question would be "but could you really do it if you wanted to?". Despite my best efforts I can't make a sound as good as Brymer did, but I console myself that this is also true of a lot of top professionals.

    To be specific about when he was at his best, I'd say not in your clips (which I suspect are the Beecham recording). For me, the best of his Mozart concertos is the 1964 one with Colin Davis (both as a performance and for the full rich sound). I'd also try the opening of the Eflat serenade (if you can ignore the pungent oboe playing). Conversely, I'd agree with your criticism for his recording of the Mozart quintet, where I'd say the sound has a brittle quality that lacks the homogeneous beauty he achieved elsewhere. But to repeat, it's the best work that one should count when assessing ideals. I'll try to send some 1964 clips.

    • September 27, 2010 at

      Hello again John. I don't think I saw the Colin David recording, at least not in the mp3 section I downloaded from. I rarely buy the discs these days.

      I agree that Brymer probably achieved the ideal tone in some of his recordings. I remember he was one of the few English players I could listen to.

    • September 28, 2010 at

      Your comment made me smile, John because Brymer was God for me when I was a student.

      I studied with Colin Bradbury at the RCM – another wide bore player – and I wonder whether this "ideal" tone to which I aspire is a direct result of early brain programming in my youth.

      When I returned to playing a couple of years ago, I did contemplate a wide bore instrument but ended up with a pair of RC prestiges.

      The more recent addition of a Backun barrel and change of mouthpiece, together with applying the "wide throat" of my training, has been a great help in bringing me closer to the sound which I want to produce – round and "plummy".

      • John Peacock
        September 28, 2010 at

        Marion: I went to Colin Bradbury for a couple of lessons once. A good teacher, but for me his sound didn't have the virtues we were discussing. Next to Brymer, my demi-God from that period was Roger Fallows: tragically cut down by aids in the 1980s, but still to be heard in the Athena Ensemble's CDs.

      • September 28, 2010 at

        I was assigned Colin Bradbury at the time so didn't really have a choice! As you say, an excellent teacher.

        I respect your opinion – it was over 20 years ago I was with Colin and perhaps my aural memory is fading somewhat! That said, the only thing I would add that I noticed was that his playing over an extended period of weekly lessons did vary an awful lot.

        I heard Jack Brymer play in a chamber music setting on a number of occasions and even got introduced to him at one of them. He is a very hard if not impossible act to follow and will always remain my top favourite.

        Have you any thoughts on John McCaw, Reginald Kell and Janet Hilton? One of the players that most certainly didn't sound good to my ear in terms of tone was Gervase de Peyer – do you remember him?

        Goodness – what a trip down memory lane!

      • John Peacock
        September 28, 2010 at

        30 years ago, I would have been quite dismissive about McCaw for not having a big sound. I guess he was one of the early adopters of Buffet in the UK. I appreciate his playing a lot more now, but still not my favourite. Of that generation, another great name was Bernard Walton – the playing on e.g. the Karajan 1950s Rosenkavalier is stunning. Kell & Hilton are very variable on record: I've heard a lot of stuff by them that's quite nasty, but occasional pure gold. There's a Kell Mozart quintet on the pristine classical website that's lovely and rather Brymeresque. And Janet Hilton's Chandos recording of the Bliss quintet is some of the best playing I've ever heard, without qualification. As for de Peyer, I was impressed when I was a student, but it mostly hasn't stood the test of time. However, I'll make an exception for his Copland concerto, which is the best I know in terms of sound (and excitement). It's a disgrace it's never been on CD. I'm happy I was able to make an MP3 of this from an old LP.

        I wish I could feel more enthused about modern British players. Technically, people like Michael Collins are streets ahead of the older generation, but the sound just doesn't make the heart sing. Probably you have to make some compromises in this aspect of your equipment to cope with modern repertoire.

      • October 5, 2010 at

        Thanks for your input, John. You've given me lots of ideas for recordings which I'll listen to when I'm not studying the work in question – I try and come up with my own musical ideas and not be influenced unduly.

        Michael Collins was in my peer group at the RCM and nobody else had a chance with him around – lol! That said, I much prefer his early playing to that which you can hear these days. It almost sounds as if he's a tad bored, bless him!

        He was responsible for inspiring me to play with a crystal m/pc which thankfully I have now discarded.

        I don't know how you feel but one is so easily influenced as a student whereas age brings with it improved analytical skills and (I hope) a little more discernment.

        Thanks once again – your enthusiasm is infectious!

  6. danop
    September 27, 2010 at

    Brymer was also an amazing sax player. I really enjoy listening to his recording of Eric Coates' Saxo-Rhapsody.

    • September 27, 2010 at

      Yes. I just read that in his bio. All these years I had no idea!

  7. September 27, 2010 at

    Your description of playing with an open throat is how I was taught which is fascinating but not surprising given my nationality and training.

    I wonder whether "flabbiness" is necessarily a bad thing? I do wish there was far more variation in clarinet tone these days.

    • September 27, 2010 at

      Hi Marion. I have come to believe that a little "belly" in the sound is effective and desirable. With Brymer, the belly is a mere fraction more rotund than my personal preference. So, no it's not a bad thing at all.

      I will be doing some research on how clarinetists voice, which should help many players decide how they want to shape their sound and how to do it.

Comments are closed.