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Malcolm ARNOLD - Two Clarinet Concertos/Scherzetto
Benjamin BRITTEN - Concerto movement
Elisabeth MACONCHY - Two Concertinos
Thea King (clarinet)
English Chamber Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Recorded 1992
HYPERION CDH55060 [64.35]


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A quarter of a century (1948 & 1974 respectively) separates Malcolm Arnold’s two clarinet concertos and unsurprisingly they present very different styles and moods. The first concerto, written during the immediate post-war austere conditions in Britain, hints at the rhythmic influences of Bartok, not to forget Arnold’s own considerable mood-swings, whilst the second concerto has both a divine slow movement and jazzy finale, memorable for war whoops on the horns. The brief Scherzetto comes from the film You know what sailors are (1953), whose title leaves nothing to the imagination but underlines Arnold’s expertise in the film music genre. Maconchy’s music is just as skilled in its craftsmanship and again both works (1945 & 1984) are separated far enough to encapsulate the span of her creative styles. Once again Bartók’s influence pervades the earlier work but with the addition of Hindemith and with purely strings to accompany, whilst the later one expands this scoring to a small orchestra of standard classical proportions (with the exception of one trumpet instead of two) and adopts a style which has taken account of progress in the intervening years, not the least of which included her own daughter’s music (Nicola Lefanu). Britten’s movement (1942/43) was orchestrated by Colin Matthews in 1989. It is the only surviving fragment (and in short score) of a projected concerto for Benny Goodman. When Britten went to the US during the war the manuscript of this work was stupidly impounded by over-zealous customs officials who suspected encoded messages in their notes and musical instructions. When it was returned to him some months later, the composer seemed to have lost interest in further work, though a little time was devoted to it while he was recovering from measles in a South London hospital in March 1943.

This is a delightful disc. All the works compelling, charming and highly approachable with supreme playing from Thea King. Her link with the music is underlined by her relationship to one of the finest clarinettists this country has ever produced, Frederick Thurston. Thurston was her teacher and husband. He died prematurely nearly half a century ago in 1953 and the age of only 52. For 16 years the principal clarinet of the BBCSO, then of Walter Legge’s star-studded Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as a chamber musician of considerable note, Thurston was also devoted to the cause of contemporary British music in his day. He encouraged not only the composers featured here but also Finzi, Bax, Ireland, Bliss, Howells, Rawsthorne, Hamilton, and Jacob to write for the clarinet. This fine recording, with superlative support from the English Chamber Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth, is as much a tribute to the Thurstons as to the composers whose music is played.

Christopher Fifield

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