This most interesting release on Helios has caused some excitement
here in Ireland because it features three works by John Mahon.
They stand well against a work by J.C. Bach and a solid concerto
John Mahon’s details
are a bit thin although Peter Holman’s sleeve-notes are superb,
However I decided to consult Prof. Harry White of UCD and Dr
Barra Boydell of NUI, Maynooth because they are co-writing an
important reference book about Irish composers, A few solutions
came up ab initio.
on Mahon’s lack of lower register being a matter of available
instruments is duly supported. Both John Mahon and his brother
William were mainly executant musicians working for a living.
John was born in
Oxford about 1749 into a quite large Irish family. He became
one of the most important clarinettists of the late 18th
century in England and Ireland; I quote Dr Boydell. From this
we may infer that the Mahon ‘boys’ worked between England and
Ireland as working players on possibly basic instruments.
Mahon made his debut
in 1772 as a performer and moved to London for a while. He made
frequent trips to Dublin but this did not stop him playing at
the Three Choirs Festival from 1773 to 1811. He was also a fixture
at the Birmingham Festivals 1788-1823. He married in Dublin
in his thirties and spent some time in Co Cork. In 1825 he finally
retired to Dublin and died at the great age of 85 in 1834.
The difference between
Mahon’s works on this disc and the others is historically significant
in several respects. I start with the J.C. Bach Concerted Symphony
in E. Dating from J.C.’s final years, it is beautiful, exact
and backward-looking; the style is more Rococo than Enlightenment.
J.C. had little exposure to the stormy politics brewing up in
his lifetime and was genuinely abstract. The, for him, rare
inclusion of the modified basset-horn confirms his lifetime
exploration of sonority. The Larghetto could stand alone as
a languid, expert occlusion of sounds just around the corner
of history. He had already used clarinets in a music drama ‘Orione’
and for special effects in his money-spinning work but not in
music he considered to be pure.
Sadly J.C. died
at only 42 but in the final Minuetto (track 8) there are signs
of a post-Haydn muscularity, which might have developed from
his friendship with Mozart. On the other hand it could have
been a separate strand from this youngest son of J.S. Bach who
displayed a noted individualism which made him few friends.
This might explain why he was buried in a paupers’ grave at
St Pancras with his name on the mass list being mis-spelled
James Hook of Norwich
is usually held to be the main exponent of the galant
style in England after he moved to London around 1763. He wrote
over thirty stage works, odes, cantatas, some two thousand songs
as well as instrumental music in what Groves describes as ‘lighter
music’. His unpublished Clarinet Concerto belies that lofty
judgement in that the Adagio goes into Beethoven territory without
a powdered wig in sight … and it’s very fine. The final Rondo
also slips into ‘controversy’ with some harsh tonalities which
might have caused the Vauxhall chattering classes to listen
for a change.
Peter Holman’s insert
notes are first rate except in the area of historical research
but when a man directs music as well as he does we can’t expect
He places instruments
superbly and the Hyperion engineers were presumably asked by
him to go for the dynamics necessary when bassoons met clarinets
back in the late-18th century.
This Helios disc
is recommended without reservation, not least because it throws
up so many questions and answers a few as well.