ARTHUR BLISS (1891-1975)

Clarinet Quintet (1932) 27'52"


Clarinet Quartet (1946) 17'05"


Clarinet Quintet (1994) 18'34"

RRO1O (rec: 1995)

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Nicholas Cox clarinet
Nicholas Ward violin
Peter Pople violin
Ivo-Jan van der Werff viola
Paul Marleyn violoncello

notes © 1996,1998 Redcliffe recordings

ARTHUR BLISS (1891 - 1975)

Clarinet Quintet (1932)

Moderato    Allegro molto    Adagietto espressivo    Allegro energico

  "I have always found it easier to write 'dramatic' music than 'pure' music", says Arthur Bliss in his autobiography. ':I need what Henry James termed a trouvaille or a donnée."

This is revealing. He was referring specifically to his Colour Symphony; but what he says has a much wider application, namely that his music should have some aesthetic necessity for existing, other than the mere fact that it does. He meant more than merely external stimuli, such as the artistry of an exceptional soloist, or some fine work of poetry, both of which have been sources of inspiration to him; he meant something altogether deeper, that creative volition, that spiritual aspiration underlying a composition, which can not only motivate the composer in the first place but can also decide how his work is to be received by the listener. The creative impulse underlying Bliss's Clarinet Quintet lies in the deep trauma and poignant loss of the First World War. The nightmare of the trenches was both a collective horror, from which no one was immune, and a personal tragedy, since Bliss's younger brother Kennard was killed at the Somme in 1916. This loss of his brother, who was a gifted clarinettist, affected the composer most deeply for many years afterwards. It found immediate expression in some small pieces (Pastoral for clarinet and piano, 1916, and Elegy for piano, 1925); but it was with two large-scale works, in which he tried to give the fullest expression to such a timeless theme as human suffering and war, that Bliss sought by his art to sublimate and externalise something of this universal tragedy. Both were written more than ten years after the war was over. One was public, Morning Heroes, 1930; the other was more private, the Clarinet Quintet, 1932.

Writing so long after the event, Bliss could view its true nature with objectivity and serenity. The centre of gravity of the Clarinet Quintet lies in the slow movement, which is a tranquil elegy (Adagietto). The sorrow of death is real and intense, but it is gradually transformed into another sort of quietness, that of acceptance of the mystery beyond death. The downward movement of the intervals of the main theme become the upward movement of the quicker, more assertive middle section. By the recapitulation a poise is reached; both ideas coexist; the slow-moving theme contains within it the rhythmic movement and variety already present from the earlier movements. The music ends on the major tonality of B, which leads directly into the E major dance of the finale. Indeed the spirit of the dance is never far below the surface of the music throughout the work. Each movement uses a triple metre, in various guises. The first movement opens with a solo cantilena for the clarinet into which the strings steal one at a time, forming a web of melodic counterpoint, and within which are contained the motifs round which the movement is developed. The dramatic rhythms, dissonances and fanfare figurations which open and close the scherzo have a distinctly martial feel to them, heightened by the poignant violin melody of the middle section. Following the lament of the slow movement, and resolving it, the brilliant finale completes the emotional transformation.


Clarinet Quartet (1946)

Moderato    Poco lento    Allegro risoluto - Andante teneramente

The immediate post-war years were productive for Rawsthorne. The essential direction towards which his style was tending had already been established in the late 30s with such works as Theme and Variations (1937), Symphonic Studies (1938), and the Piano Concerto No.1 (1939). Moreover his years in the army, though frustrating, were not entirely cut off from music: he wrote incidental music for some films (Kubla Khan, Radio News Reel, Burma Victory), he conducted his music occasionally, he had commissions for two overtures (Street Corner, 1944, Cortege, 1945); so after 1945 he was able to pick up the thread of his composition again without delay. He lost no time in reasserting his previous style, with such achievements as the Clarinet Quartet, 1946, the Oboe Concerto, 1947, and the Cello Sonata, 1948.

Certain facts are clear. First, all the works are instrumental. Although his total output does contain some songs and vocal music - including the exquisite little carol The Oxen, to words by Thomas Hardy - words acted as a limitation to his melodic and textural invention. It is in the instrumental music that his style reaches the fullest and most characteristic fulfilment. Moreover his idiom of melodic counterpoint, and extended tonality, seems to find fuller scope in chamber music, where it is concentrated, than in the orchestral works, where it is more diffuse. The ideas are instrumentally derived, and the structures in which he clothes them (symphony concerto, sonata) are conventional, neoclassical.

Several 20th century trends and fashions were eschewed by Rawsthorne. By identifying and eliminating those factors which do not apply we can perhaps begin to detect those which do, and to perceive more clearly where his uniqueness lies. Viennese serialism was one; folk song was another-so, surprisingly, was jazz. He was unaffected by the "athematic" and "atonal" trends of the 1950s; he had no place among the aleatoric, static or experimental schools; electronic technology appealed to him not at all.

At the core of his technique lay control of the materia musica; at the core of that lay melodic invention. In the case of many works, including the Clarinet Quartet, an identifying chord, or matrix, is used from which the melodic ideas and motifs are derived. In this case it is a Stravinskyan combination of tonic and dominant, and a juxtaposition of tonal centres a semitone apart, A and B flat - a typical Rawsthorne characteristic. Melodic motifs from this cell make up the work. It appears after an introductory 6-bar clarinet melody, which it abruptly cuts short, and gives rise immediately to a sharply defined dotted rhythm, energetic and pointed, providing the contrasted material for the opening movement.

The melodic material gives prominence to the interval of the minor third; indeed the minor mode prevails throughout the work. This has to do with the 'axis' system of tonal centres whereby each of the three axes - tonic, subdominant, dominant -operates four distinct tonal centres in the circle of perfect fifths. Each of these tonal centres is a minor third apart. Thus arises the somewhat Bartokian flavour of many of Rawsthorne's melodic ideas; it also explains the structural importance of the minor third. Scalic ideas which begin with one tonal inflection finish with another as the centre shifts by a minor third. Thus Rawsthorne discovers new possibilities in the tonal language. The ideas are capable of widely contrasted treatments - sustained lyricism, rhythmic incisiveness, an energetic scherzando- all of which are demonstrated in this work. They are governed by the composer's joy in inventing textures for a small group of solo instruments.

Whereas in the first movement the matrix is stated in the form of a chord accented then dying away, in the second movement it is spelt out note by note and forms a kaleidoscopic accompaniment to the slow lyrical intensity of clarinet melody - one of Rawsthorne's most successful structures. A short middle section for the string trio, a shade quicker, separates the repetition of clarinet theme, much shortened on its reappearance. In the third movement notes of the matrix are hammered in two 2-bar phrases with the rhythmic urgency of a Bohemian folk dance, or furiant. This is brought to a close with a coda, which is a reprise of the clarinet melody of the opening movement, but with the note-values augmented, terminated by the spelt out version of matrix, this time cadential.


Clarinet Quintet (1994)

Vivace    Slow    Vivace, con moto    Allegro    Presto


The 1990s began auspiciously for Routh, with the Concerto for Ensemble III. In that piece for the first time the wealth and possibilities of the scale of extended tonality (the whole tone scale with the addition of the perfect fourth) were applied to a concerted work, in five short movements, for an ensemble of solo players. It left the composer wanting to continue in similar vein. The Concerto had used a group of six instruments, divided into two groups of three: a string trio, and a trio consisting of piano-clarinet-horn. The character of the clarinet was such as to hold the attention equally effectively, if not more, in a work where it was on its own as a solo instrument. The strings were increased from a trio to a quartet. Nothing was to impede or blanket the freedom of the clarinet's wide range of expression and virtuosity. So the Clarinet Quintet focuses attention onto the solo writing, and the clarinet throughout is prominent, like a concerto. As a whole, the five movements are a positive affirmation, in characteristically energico style, of the composer's belief in the power of music to express and to celebrate many moods and aspects of human life, optimistic and the reverse, in the late twentieth century. If the chief attention is given to the lyrical slow movement, which is longer than the rest, and more fully developed, the music nevertheless begins and ends on an optimistic note.

The first movement is made up of short expressive motifs; soon a contrasting phrase is heard, derived from the opening motif, and homogeneous with it, though in augmentation. Both ideas are heard twice before the short movement ends abruptly. The rhythmic pulse running through the movement is maintained throughout the work; it sustains even the long lyrical slow movement, which follows next. This movement alone admits of development of the material, largely by means of melodic sequence and repetition The subdued mood of grief soon resolves. The Vivace which follows reverts to the short phrases of the opening movement, but staccato this time for the clarinet, which is one of the most characteristic features of the instrument; moreover the phrases build up in different metrical lengths (3 + 4 + 5) to a brilliant climax. A more subdued middle section for the strings, legato, meno f dolce, with the clarinet phrases interjected, but with the note-order reversed, leads to a repetition of the Vivace.

After these rhythmic irregularities, the Minuet and its attendant Trio is self explanatory. It leads to the final movement of the suite, a headlong Presto, with the strings in unison, f, and with contrasted chords, p. There is a suggestion of darker forces beneath the surface, in the subsidiary clarinet melody which peeps out briefly but this is not allowed to develop before the Presto material reasserts itself to close the work on an optimistic note.

The Quintet was written for Nicholas Cox, the principal clarinet of the Reddcliffe Ensemble.

© 1996,1998 Redcliffe recordings

GRAMOPHONE Review of this disc November 1996

Though by no means prolific in the number of releases Redcliffe have nevertheless provided a much-needed service for some less-recorded composers such as Priaulx Rainer, Dame Elisabeth Lutyens, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne and Francis Routh. In this release two clarinet works – a quartet by Rawsthorne and a quintet by Routh – receive first recordings, whilst the Clarinet Quintet by Arthur Bliss joins just one other version in the catalogue. Quite why the Bliss Quintet should have received only two recordings in recent years is something of a mystery to me, as the quality of this lovely, rhapsodic work is extremely high indeed. The intricately spun melodies of the first movement are here beautifully rendered by Nicholas Cox and his colleagues, and the elegiac slow movement is most movingly delivered too.

Alan Rawsthorne’s most astringent Clarinet Quartet of 1946 strikes me as very fine, and a worthwhile discovery also. Although it displays a clear debt to Viennese serialism its lyrical qualities are exceptionally strong and it is by no means an unapproachable piece. Francis Routh’s five-movement Clarinet Quintet was composed in 1994, but in a stylistic sense could easily be contemporary with, or even earlier than, the Rawsthorne. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant and finely crafted work which here receives a spirited reading from its dedicatee, Nicholas Cox. The recorded sound is very natural indeed.

Michael Stewart

Gramophone Reviews are avaliable on-line


The Ensemble derives its name from the Redcliffe Concerts, which were founded in 1964 for the performance of British composers' works. The concerts focussed primarily on the music of living composers which merited performance; but it soon became clear that, in attempting to meet the needs of British music in this way, which would not otherwise be met, there were other than contemporary composers with a legitimate call on the public attention. There were composers of the recent past, whose music was unjustifiably ignored, such as Frank Bridge, Constant Lambert, Alan Bush; and there were composers of an earlier period, chief among them Samuel Wesley.

For the furtherance of this work a specialist ensemble, of first class quality, was called for. So the REDCLIFFE ENSEMBLE was formed in the early 1970s.

Over the years that followed they built up a formidable reputation, not only for their appearances in Redcliffe Concerts, but for their recordings, tours and broadcasts. Dedicated professional performances were achieved, which not only introduced numerous British composers and premiere performances, opening up new areas of music hitherto unsuspected, but also balanced these as the need arose with other works of the contemporary European repertoire.

The REDCLIFFE ENSEMBLE is a group of soloists, and their numbers depend on the work being performed. Occasionally they can be augmented up to the size of a Chamber Orchestra.

The REDCLIFFE ENSEMBLE record exclusively for Redcliffe Recordings.

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