Friday 9 February 2024

Wigmore Soloists play chamber music by Ferguson, Bliss and Holloway

Nailing my colours to the mast, I suggest that Howard Ferguson’s Octet, op.4 is one of the most significant chamber music works from the 1930s. The equilibrium of the movements is key to this work’s ultimate success. There is a thoughtful opening Moderato, complete with its allusion to the horn theme from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. This is followed by a vibrant, if uneasy, scherzo with quite a few melodic episodes. There is a definite Celtic feel in these pages, which may reflect Ferguson’s birthplace, Belfast. The lyrical slow movement is full of pastoral charm with just the hint of something a touch more demanding. This serenity is destroyed by the rhythmic intensity of the Allegro feroce. However, all is not so strict, as there are sweeping “big tunes” of an almost filmic nature to interrupt the proceedings.

To be sure, much of the Octet nods at various characteristics of English music current at that time. It is not “pastoral” as such but does have several passages that can be so described. Equally so, are nods to neo-classicism and even the “modernism” of Bliss and Walton. What is absent is any hint of serialism or atonality.

The Octet was finished in 1933 and was dedicated to R. O. Morris, Ferguson’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music. It was originally conceived as a quintet for clarinet and strings and then modified into a septet with the addition of the bassoon and the French horn. At Morris’s suggestion, the instrumentation of the piece was expanded to include a second violin. This made it the ideal companion to Schubert’s Octet in F major, D.803.

Two other versions of Howard Ferguson’s Octet are in circulation: The Nash Ensemble on Hyperion, CDA66192 (1990) and Dennis Brain with the Griller Quartet et al, on Dutton Epoch CDAX8014 (1937/2019).

Arthur Bliss reminded the potential listener that “the personality of a great player has often been the incentive for me to compose a work.” He cites as examples the Oboe Quintet for Leon Goossens, the Viola Sonata for Lionel Tertis, the Piano Concerto for Solomon, and the Violin Concerto for Campoli. The Clarinet Quintet, F.20, was written in 1932 and was premiered the following year by Frederick Thurston and the Kutcher String Quartet. It was dedicated to the composer, Bernard van Dieren. But a deeper inspiration can be sensed in these pages: Bliss’s brother Kennard, who was killed during the First World War, was an accomplished clarinettist.

The overall temper of the Quintet is one of lyricism and to a certain extent resignation. Various moods are inherent in the four movements including serenity, animation, and drama, but as the advertising blurb suggests, “the sunny, extrovert aspects of Bliss’s character ultimately prevail in the brilliantly energetic finale.”

Contemporary criticism noted that with the Clarinet Quintet, Bliss had moved on from his “enfant terrible” period. It is fair to say that this is one of his masterpieces, certainly within the genre of chamber music. It is given a wonderful performance by the Wigmore Soloists and Michael Collins, clarinettist.

There are other satisfactory performances of Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet on disc, including David Campbell (clarinet) with the Maggini Quartet (Naxos, 8.557394, reviewed here) and Janet Hilton (clarinet) with the Lindsay String Quartet (Chandos, Chan 8683). There are also two releases of Frederick Thurston and the Griller Quartet’s 1930s recording (Testament SBT1366 and Clarinet Classics CC0037)

My review of Robin Holloway’s Serenade in C for octet, op.41 (1979) is beholden to the liner notes. The Serenade has five movements. The opening Marcia is full of “quirky cross-rhythms” complimented by a pleasant trio section. The short Menuetto alla tarantella is vigorous and dynamic with a big tune for the bassoon and jazz like pizzicato on the double bass. Despite being the official slow movement, the Andante is characterised by curious wit and tongue in cheek commentary. It is a wayward set of variations based on a “touching, sincere, naïve…”  melody discovered in a Methodist hymnbook. Then, a second Menuetto follows with its nods to Poulenc and Schubert. Once again, it is contrary, with the conventional repeats “[going] off in different directions.”  The Serenade concludes with another tarantella where “scraps of silly tune are put through the textural, tonal and rhythmic mincer.”

The listener will be charmed by the Serenade’s humour and mischievousness. Holloway has stated that it is full of clichés, parodies, and “commonplace” musical devices. That said, the piece is characterised by “compositional rigour” as well as a profound understanding of the possibilities of the various instruments.

It is interesting that the scoring is the same as that of both Ferguson’s and Schubert’s Octets. Holloway acknowledges the latter as a model. This is music for entertainment, “making few intellectual demands.” It is at a stylistic distance from the composer’s more modernist offerings (I recall hearing one of his Concertos for Orchestra and being baffled). That said, I doubt Classic fM will be playing this Serenade anytime soon.

The liner notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler are helpful in every way. They are printed in English, French and German. There is also a short resume about the Wigmore Players.

This outstanding survey of three characteristic chamber works are splendid examples of “deeply personal” utterances from composers of different stylistic mores. All are superbly written for their medium. The performances are committed and inspiring in every case and are complimented by an excellent recording.

Track Listing:
Howard Ferguson (1908-99)

Octet, op.4 (1933)
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Clarinet Quintet, F.20 (1932)
Robin Holloway (b.1943)
Serenade in C for octet, op.41 (1979)
Michael Collins (clarinet) (Bliss), Wigmore Soloists
rec. 17-19 December 2021 (Ferguson, Bliss), 13-14 April 2023 (Holloway), Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, England
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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