Friday, 10 June 2016

British Clarinet Concertos on Chandos

Benjamin Britten’s Movements for a clarinet concerto is one of the most enjoyable pieces that the composer never (quite) wrote. As Christopher Palmer said (liner notes, Hyperion CDH 55060) it is ‘definitely a work that should have been finished.’
During Britten’s wartime sojourn in the United States he had discussions about the possibility of composing a Clarinet Concerto for the famous American band-leader and clarinettist Benny Goodman.  Goodman had recently commissioned the exiled Béla Bartok to write the trio Contrasts. He was to invite Copland, Morton Gould, Poulenc and Arnold to compose works for his performance. 
When Britten left the USA to return to the United Kingdom in 1942, the manuscript sketches of his concerto were impounded by customs: it was believed that they contained secret code.  Work was suspended as Britten completed Peter Grimes, and Goodman latterly decided not proceed with the project, due to America entering the war.
In 1979 Colin Mathews completed and orchestrated the sketches as Movement for clarinet and orchestra. It was first heard during March 1990 and was subsequently recorded on the above mentioned Hyperion CD. In 2007, Mathews decided to extend the work by adding two additional movements.  The second, ‘Mazurka elegiaca’ is an arrangement of the eponymous work for two pianos, op.23 no.2.  This had been composed in New York in 1941, in memoriam of the pianist Jan Paderewski. The finale is ‘an adaptation for an orchestral piece thought to be the Sonata for orchestra Britten was working on this during 1942/3.  The ‘completed’ concerto was first heard in Gateshead during May 2008.
This is a beautifully balanced work that unearths much attractive music.  It is good to have what is effectively a ‘new’ concerto by Britten. Another version of this work appears on NMC NMCD140 with the same soloist as here, but accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair. I have not heard this recording.

Partially due to their discovery by Classic FM, Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, op.23a (1938-43) have more than a dozen recordings in the catalogues. Some of these are for the clarinet/piano arrangement, which was the work’s original incarnation.  In 1989 the composer Lawrence Ashmore (1928-2013) transcribed the piano part for string orchestra. This was at the behest of the American clarinettist Richard Stoltzman, who wanted an orchestral piece to accompany his recording of the Finzi Clarinet Concerto, op.31 (1948-9).
In spite of their short duration, these five pieces encompass a wide range of emotion and stylistic variety. There is a nod to Poulenc in the opening Prelude. The ‘Romance’ is restrained, and, typically for the composer, quite introverted. Diane McVeigh has noted that the third movement ‘Carol’ was originally a song setting of Gurney’s ‘Winter now has bared her trees.’ The ‘Forlana’ which is a gently lilting dance was formerly of Italian extraction, once ‘popular with Venetian gondoliers’, but was most famously used by J.S. Bach in his orchestral suite in C major and by Ravel in his Le Tombeau de Couperin. The influence of William Walton’s overture Portsmouth Point has been noted in the vivacious final ‘Fughetta’ which was the only movement written especially for this set of bagatelles.

Arnold Cooke’s Concerto No. 1 for clarinet and string orchestra was composed in 1955. Eric Wetherell, in his study of the composer, notes that Cooke once confessed in a radio broadcast that his favourite instruments were the clarinet and the oboe.  Certainly, over the years he wrote widely for these. There are sonatas for clarinet (1959), oboe (1957), two concertos for clarinet (1955 and 1981/2) a concerto for oboe and strings (1954) as well as a number of chamber works featuring these instruments.
The Concerto No. 1 was first performed at the 1957 Cheltenham Festival by Gervase de Peyer and the Goldsborough String Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. It made a ‘favourable impression by its lyrical aptness and fine craftsmanship.’ It is written in traditional three movement form.  
Cooke is often dismissed as being ‘sub-Hindemith’ in his musical style. He is criticised for lacking any ‘Englishness’. This present concerto lays that myth to rest. Especially so with the gorgeous middle movement which evokes the English countryside to the extent that the composer indulges in an exact transcription of a blackbird’s song.  The opening movement is complex, founded on four separate themes that evolve in sequence and in dialogue. In spite of this complexity, the general mood is one of lyricism and a feel of the open air. The finale is typically vivacious, however there is a reflective middle section.  This is happy music, without a care in the world. It may not be Delius or Vaughan Williams, but Arnold Cooke suggests the spirit of place as well as either of them. It is not dry as dust or pedantic, as his critics would have listeners believe.  Arnold Cooke’s Clarinet Concerto No.1 is also available on Hyperion Helios CDH55069 played by Thea King with the North West Chamber Orchestra of Seattle under Alun Francis.

The latest work on this CD is William Mathias Clarinet Concerto for string orchestra and percussion op.68 which was written in 1975. It was dedicated to Gervase de Peyer to whom he Mathias been promising a concerto since the mid-sixties. The concerto was premiered in St Asaph Cathedral on 22 September of that year with the dedicatee and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton.
This is a work that combines Mathias’ neo-classical style with jazz and encompasses a satisfying structural balance. The percussion (both pitched and unpitched) is used to ‘add atmospheric colouring and to highlight the use of jazz rhythms’ especially in the finale.  There is much here to enjoy: Bartokian rhythms, blues infused melodies as well as some delicious harmonies. The middle movement is ‘nocturnal’ in mood: it is, as the composer wrote ‘highly introspective, sometimes tender, [and] sometimes passionate.’

As usual with Chandos, the production of this CD is excellent. The liner notes by Anthony Burton reflect the history, analysis and impact of all four works. They are given in English, German and French, so one hopes that these superb British clarinet concertos will penetrate far into Europe. The booklet has a number of photographs of the performers and the composers (except for some reason Finzi).

Michael Collins’s playing in these four concertos is revelatory: he equals his acknowledged triumph in Volume 1 of this series. This is reflected in the ideal sound quality of the recording.  I look forward to volumes 3, 4, 5 and more of this exciting and essential series of British Clarinet Music. 

Track Listings:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Movements for a clarinet concerto (1941-2)
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Five Bagatelles, op.23a (1938-43)
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005) Concerto No.1 for clarinet and string orchestra (1955)
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Clarinet Concerto, op.68 (1975)
Michael Collins (Soloist/Conductor); BBC Symphony Orchestra
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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