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CD Review

English Clarinet Concertos

Thea King, clarinet
English Chamber Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Hyperion Helios CDH55060 64:33
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Reissue of Hyperion CDA66634

Summary for the Busy Executive: Wonderful.

We all know the glut of concertos for piano, violin, and cello. For practically every other instrument, players find themselves restricted to a very small range of works featuring them, and often not by the composers one finds in textbooks. Many composers wrote concertos for their own use, and most played either piano or violin. Clarinetists are relatively lucky in that they can enjoy the spotlight shone on them by several major composers, from Mozart on. Fortunately, it turns out that outstanding virtuosos have come to the notice of great composers and inspired the latter to want to write for them. Every work here connects in some way to Frederick Thurston (to the British clarinet what Lionel Tertis was to the viola), Benny Goodman, or Thea King (Thurston's pupil and, later, wife).

Malcolm Arnold, from the William Walton wing of British Modernism, had a prodigious gift and facility. In fact, the facility led to his underestimation by the critical establishment for years. He was always popular with audiences (especially through his film scores), but only recently has the musical establishment begun to take him at his true measure. Arnold reminds me – in outlook, if not in idiom – of Gustav Mahler. Both try to contain contradictions. Arnold will frequently put something "low" or shockingly trivial in an otherwise serious, elevated discourse, and emotionally juxtaposes black-hearted dejection with daffy elation. The two clarinet concerti provide cases in point.

The first, a fairly early work dedicated to Thurston, plays with classical conventions in an individual way. The opening movement, for example, exhibits "sonataness" (viz. Colbert's "truthiness") without actually becoming a formal sonata – no definite first and second subject groups, for example. Instead, ideas jostle against each other – frequently, two or even three at a time. Despite the ensuing contrapuntal activity, textures remain clear and rhythm bouncy, even though the feeling isn't exactly cozy – a bit grim, in fact. Nevertheless, a cheeky little tune (practically guaranteed to bring a smile to your face) occasionally percolates through, as if the composer razzed his Finer Feelings. The second movement, another downer, is even more tightly constructed, consisting mainly of arpeggios up and down. From such a bald description, you might think it a bore, but Arnold amazes you with all that he can wring from such material. The finale is a quick, neoclassical romp.

The second concerto, for Goodman, comes from Arnold's late period. Overall, it gives the impression of more ease and greater freedom with forms than the first. The beginning movement features a real improvised cadenza. Because he was dealing with a virtuoso improviser, Arnold's only instructions to the player are to be as "far out" as one likes on the themes (from all movements) of the concerto. Goodman apparently obeyed the first, but not the second. Goodman's oversight is corrected in this performance with a cadenza (not improvised) written out by King and Christopher Palmer. The second movement features a lyrical theme that could have come straight out of Appalachian Spring allied to non-Copland harmonies. Arnold interrupts the pastoral with two Angst-filled episodes, led by timpani. We return to the pastoral by the end, but because of those episodes, its meaning has changed. The finale, "The Pre-Goodman Rag," means what it says, with a ricky-tick ragtime beat that moves through various popular styles (including a circus march) and wants little more than to get the audience in a happy frame of mind to rise in a standing O.

Yet another undeservedly neglected British composer, Elizabeth Maconchy studied with, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Twenties. Native composers not Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, and Britten have had a rough time finding general recognition. Maconchy had the additional disadvantage that attaches itself to women composers. She left the Royal College of Music and quickly moved away from English influences to European ones, becoming a sort of English Bartók and later on, taking into account newer developments. Vaughan Williams admired her very different work. She has left, among other things, a fine cycle of thirteen string quartets that deserves a wider hearing.

Maconchy's first Concertino, for Thurston, uses clarinet and strings. Despite the diminutive title, it's a fairly serious, even austere, work, although paradoxically light in texture. The opening movement spits out short, jagged ideas and obsesses over them, with Maconchy favoring short bursts of imitative lines, not quite canons. The following movements are what you expect: slow second and fast finale. However, you eventually realize that all three movements seem to rise from the same small group of thematic cells. The little concertino holds together with steely logic. The string writing, brilliant without showiness, exhibits an aristocratic musical mind concentrating at string-quartet level.

The Concertino #2, composed for Thea King, comes from Maconchy's late period. If anything, it's even more elegant than the first. Maconchy atomizes her ideas even further. Although she adds other instruments to the string ensemble, the work comes across as starker, less lush, than its predecessor. We almost don't hear themes – rather, she emphasizes characteristic pitches, gestures, and intervals. I hear sounds and procedures of the contemporary British Young Turks, like Maxwell Davies, Knussen, and LeFanu (Maconchy's daughter). Although shorter than the first (and the movements run progressively shorter), you don't feel cheated. There's a lot of nourishment here.

The Britten is the real heartbreaker on the program. Goodman commissioned Britten for a concerto and then apparently forgot about it. Britten got as far as writing one movement before he scrapped the project. Colin Matthews, Britten's assistant in his late years, came across the piece, cleaned it up (it needed remarkably little of this), and orchestrated it from hints in the manuscript. Although it would have been interesting to hear what the composer himself would have done, Matthews does a great job approximating not only Britten's sound, but Britten's sound from the early Forties, with some witty byplay among (believe it or not) timpani, harp, and celesta. The movement in itself is incredibly good. I don't doubt that the complete concerto would have ranked not only as one of Britten's best, but as a masterpiece at the level of the Mozart. It has all the bounce and buoyancy of its ancestor. It moves like Puck in the quick sections and looks forward to the dreamy languor of the Nocturnal for guitar and of the opera Midsummer Night's Dream. I wish Britten could have said the hell with Goodman and completed the thing, but apparently he did only the first.

As a bonus, we get a little morceau from Malcolm Arnold. Arnold made a pile of cash from his film work. His speed and his results had many producers lined up outside his door, especially after he won the Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai. The Scherzetto comes from a charming film called You Know What Sailors Are, which sounds like a typically arch British sex comedy, but isn't, being instead a sly comedy on the Cold War arms race. Knowing that Thurston would be his lead clarinet, he liked to write solos for him. Whipped into concert shape by the sainted Christopher Palmer, this little number has the bubbly atmosphere of the seaside, as well as the pleasant tingle of farcical sneakery.

Thea King sails through these quite different works, a marvelously communicative player. The English Chamber Orchestra does its usual superb job of combining precision and warmth. Even Barry Wordsworth, a conductor whom I normally find rather bland, bestirs himself to lead lively, sharp performances from all concerned. A winner of a disc.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.