Three major romantic concertos in A minor begin with the opening gambit of dramatic orchestral fragments alternating with more lyrical, quasi-improvisational solo interventions, gradually leading into a classical allegro. First off the mark was Dvorak with his Violin Concerto of 1883, and he also had the curious idea of a foreshortened first movement, effectively breaking off after the exposition and going straight into the slow movement. To the tidier minds of Brahms and Stanford this must have seemed like a bleeding wound, and when Brahms began his Double Concerto of four years later with a similar gesture he then went on to write a fully developed allegro in his own inimitable manner. Since the Dvorak was first performed in England in 1888 Stanford must have got to know the two works virtually contemporaneously and by the time he wrote his Clarinet Concerto in 1902 he had had plenty of time to reflect that, if Brahms had "normalised" Dvorak's rather odd first movement procedure, Dvorak's bleeding wound could in fact be stopped another way. To begin with he proceeds exactly as Dvorak had - a first movement exposition which, instead of a development, gives way to an expansive slow movement. But then, where Dvorak had provided a typical furiant finale unrelated thematically to what had gone before, Stanford leads, again without a break, into a finale which is actually a recapitulation, albeit greatly varied, of the first movement themes. Since for good cyclic measure he also includes a reference to the slow movement, the whole work (which he claimed to be in a single movement) combines the freedom of a rhapsody with the discipline of a symphony. Happily, this formal mastery is combined with his invention at its most free-flowing and poetic, and the result is a gem of a concerto which should be in the repertoire of clarinettists all round the world.
The present recording is a reissue of the first of the three which have so far been made (notable clarinettists who have played it and not recorded it include Alan Hacker and Jack Brymer - BBC Legends could oblige with the latter if they felt like it). Dame Thea is the widow of Frederick Thurston who, as a gifted young student, played the work under Stanford's direction and was thereafter the one artist who continued to give an occasional airing. Perhaps for this reason she has a slightly proprietorial feeling about it (I don't know how many performances she has given but I remember a BBC performance with Ashley Lawrence a few years before this recording). Alun Francis in his notes describes how he took the trouble to correct a number of discrepancies between the available scores and in fact there is a strong sense that the performance has been very thoroughly prepared as a team. Most importantly, they both have a fine instinct for how Stanford is not like Brahms. It is difficult to describe this, and any attempt will be purely subjective, but Stanford is often suffused with light and grace where Brahms is dark and gruff, and there is a strong feeling, which tends to be common to Celtic composers, that he is listening to distant voices, or rather that the music is reaching us from afar.
If King and Francis have understood this through long experience and awareness of the work, Emma Johnson (ASV CD DCA 787, also coupled with the Finzi but adding Stanford's 3 Intermezzi, op.13 and the Finzi Bagatelles), through youthful intuition, and Sir Charles Groves, through his wide-ranging experience, come pretty close and Johnson's leprechaun-like finale is a very attractive alternative. She plays the slow movement with a great sense of fantasy and the freedom of a soloist who knows that her conductor's safety-net is always there to support her.
This is what is lacking in Janet Hilton's technically superb version. Vernon Handley should logically have been the most experienced Stanfordian conductor of the three since he has recorded all the symphonies and rhapsodies (the Clarinet Concerto came with the Second Symphony, CHAN 8991) but, sad to tell, he showed precious little sympathy for them, with the 4th Symphony a very sorry misrepresentation indeed. It is a great pity that no alternative cycle has been attempted. The tell-tale signs are already present in the Concerto's first movement, where the soloist has little freedom to express around Handley's dogged beat, but the real let-down is the slow movement. Lopping almost two minutes off the other versions, Hilton can be heard continually trying to slow it down, but Handley will have none of it and barges on regardless.
Stanford was a widely travelled European musician of eclectic tastes. If his inspiration was not wholly reliable he had the seeds of a great composer in him. Finzi, by contrast, was the typical local master, ploughing his narrow furrow beneath darkened skies. Except that, as Hardy showed, emotions are not less universal nor tragedies less tragic because they take place in a confined geographical area. These are the thoughts that came to me listening to the King/Francis version, which has great strength and sense of direction as well as poetry. In Johnson's more amiable hands I was less sure. In the first movement's alternation of gritty orchestral phrases and pastoral musings from the soloist, with King the clarinet is still the dominant partner and the music has more point that way. The orchestral climax towards the end of the slow movement is very passionately conducted by Groves but the music up till that point has drifted along fairly aimlessly (however pleasingly) so it comes as the climax of nothing in particular. The local aspects of the music are brought to the fore, a sort of musical counterpart to the rolling English road that goes to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. Johnson's finale is her most effective movement.
When the Johnson disc appeared, the extra music rather acted to its advantage. Now this is countered by the cheaper price of the Helios reissue (and a warm but beautifully clear recording; the ASV is more reverberant, with a slight mushiness that again doesn't help the Finzi much). Unless you must have the Stanford Intermezzi (which are attractive, but not indispensable Stanford) and the Finzi Bagatelles (which are easily obtainable elsewhere; other recordings of the Intermezzi have been made but they may not be easy to find), things now seem tilted in Dame Thea's favour. And, if you have the Finzi in a differently coupled version, at the Helios price you might consider getting this for the Stanford.