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CD REVIEW



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Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Five Bagatelles arr. Lawrence Ashmore (1950s) [15:01]
Clarinet Concerto in C minor op. 37 (1949) [29:50]
Lawrence ASHMORE (b. 1930)
The Four Seasons [21:16]
Greensleeves [4:18]
Richard Stoltzman (clarinet)
Guildhall String Ensemble/Robert Salter
rec. 1990, London. DDD
RCA-BMG 60437-2-RC [70:45]

 


Before the Thea King (Hyperion) and John Denman (Lyrita) recordings of the Finzi clarinet concerto we had to rely on BBC radio broadcasts. Both King and Angela Malsbury were champions of the work in the early 1970s. Michael Collins won Young Musician of the Year in 1979 with the Finzi concerto. The Lyrita (LP) and Hyperion (LP then promptly onto CD) staples followed shortly afterwards. Then came a succession of soloists as the concerto surfed and fed the wave of the worldwide Finzi revival. The concerto is now a Finzi ‘signature’ work encapsulating the essence of this vividly melodic pastoral lyricist. In the last two years here in the North-West of England I have heard three performances of the concerto and I could have heard another four with a fifth in St Helens in April. Finzi is now an easy-winner.

Stoltzman is an American performer and his having taken up the Finzi was an important signal of acceptance across the Atlantic. Many US music-lovers will have come to know the Finzi through this CD now custom-reissued at mid-bargain price by Arkiv. 

Stoltzman came to the UK to make these recordings and at the same time also had the distinction of making the premiere recording of an orchestration of another of Finzi's clarinet works, the Five Bagatelles. These little essays do not have the substantive depth of the concerto but they do capture aspects of Finzi's character in an immediately entrancing way. Lawrence Ashmore, who also directs the Guildhall Ensemble provides totally idiomatic and Finzi-faithful orchestrations of the original piano accompaniments. Effectively he gives us a Finzi suite for clarinet and orchestra. 

Stoltzman in both the Concerto and the Bagatelles tends to be rather dry-eyed. The dewy pastoralism is left understated when compared with Johnson, Hacker, King, Plane or Marriner; not that any of them gush. It's a matter of finer shades. Two other things distinguish Stoltzman. He has miraculous technique - breath control that seems to defy physical limitation. Also his sound conveys the burred and grained woody tones of the instrument more than any of the competition. 

It is the Bagatelles that crystallise comparisons. They're still not at all a common work even in the Finzi boom - and certainly not in orchestrated form. The only other recording of them is from 1997 by Robert Plane on Naxos. Plane yields more to the shepherds' carol aspect and also turns in a fine reading of the Clarinet Concerto. His is a preferred choice if you prefer an all-Finzi recital. Naxos fill out the disc with the composer's shorter orchestral pieces including the ineffably beautiful Introit. Stoltzman on the other hand gives us Lawrence Ashmore in a work called The Four Seasons and in Greensleeves. The former is an artful and imaginatively orchestrated fantasy through which are threaded many traditional English tunes. It's pleasing rather than totally compelling although I did think that the chilly Winter section was extremely well done. 

Rob Barnett 

 


 


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