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The English Clarinet
Edward GERMAN (1862-1936)

Romance for clarinet and piano (1889) [4:35]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Sonata for clarinet and piano (1934) [13:51]
Edwin ROXBURGH (b. 1937)

Wordsworth Miniatures for solo clarinet (1998) [8:05]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano (1938-43) [15:19]
William Yeates HURLSTONE (1876-1906)

Four Characteristic Pieces for clarinet and piano (1899) [16:57]
Paul PATTERSON (b. 1947)

Soliloquy for solo clarinet (c.1995) [5:52]
William LLOYD WEBBER (1914-1982)

Frensham Pond for clarinet and piano (1960) [2:44]
Air and Variations for clarinet and piano (1952) [6:38]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)

Pastoral for clarinet and piano (1916) [4:25]
John Bradbury (clarinet)
James Cryer (piano)
rec. 2-3 June 2006, Wathen Hall, Barnes, London, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.570539 [78:26]
Experience Classicsonline

Thumbs Up

Naxos has assembled an attractive collection of English clarinet works that are predominantly in a late-Romantic vein. It is hard to mention English clarinet music without references to Frederick Thurston, a student at the Royal College of Music (RCM), who was the greatest clarinettist of his generation. Thurston’s art inspired a large quantity of clarinet music from composers such as Bliss, Arnold, Ireland, Bax, Finzi, Rawsthorne and William Lloyd Webber.

The attractive opening score is from Edward German who, although writing in several genres, is mainly remembered today for his music for the stage; notably the comic opera Merrie England (1902). German’s Romance is the earliest score on the disc and clarinettist John Bradbury and pianist James Cryer provide a relaxing and well paced reading for this undemanding listening experience.

Composed in 1934 Bax’s Sonata two movement Sonata is dedicated to his friend Hugh Prew an amateur clarinettist. The premiere was given by Frederick Thurston and pianist Harriet Cohen at a recital of the London Contemporary Music Centre at the Cowdray Hall in 1935. In this interpretation the good humoured first movement Molto moderato is pervaded with nostalgic yearning. Largely brisk music the second movement Allegro Vivace is hectic and waspish with technical demands of considerable virtuosity required from John Bradbury.

Edwin Roxburgh was a composition pupil of Herbert Howells at the RCM and later studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence. The Four Wordsworth Miniatures, composed in 1998, were commissioned by Linda Merrick who premiered the score. The four movements have been given descriptive titles by the composer and these are narrated here as a preface to the performance. John Bradbury communicates a serious character to the opening miniature Calm Is The Fragrant Air whilst Waters On A Starry Night is frenetic and virtuosic. Thoughts That Do Often Lie Too Deep For Tears is yearning music that emanates from the lowest registers of the clarinet and in the final piece The Cataracts Blow Their Trumpet the soloist is in an upbeat and playful mood.

One of Gerald Finzi’s finest scores is his celebrated Clarinet Concerto composed for Thurston in 1948-49. His fondness for the clarinet is demonstrated the Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 written around a decade earlier (1938-43) and intended for clarinettist Pauline Juler. The attractive suite of five distinctive short movements has become a cornerstone of the clarinet repertoire and has been arranged into various alternative scorings. A bright and breezy Prelude contains a melancholic central section; Bradbury is sad and mournful in the Romance and the calm and engaging Carol has a strong nostalgic tinge. In the Forlana Bradbury and Cryer convey a fresh, outdoor feel and the light and brisk Fughetta makes for an optimistic conclusion.

William Hurlstone was a star composition student of Stanford at the RCM. In 1906 Hurlstone became Professor of Counterpoint at the College but his career was cut short later that year by his untimely death. A clarinettist himself, Hurlstone wrote his Four Characteristic Pieces for George Clinton in 1899, a suite that deserves to be a staple of the repertoire. The opening piece is the creative Ballade generously crammed with ideas and emotional contrasts. Bradbury and Cryer in this interpretation of the much admired Croon Song evoke comforting images of a domestic nature. The dance-like Intermezzo has a scurrying quality and the concluding Scherzo with its character of a fresh, cool breeze suggests a bracing walk on the hills.

We are told nothing in the booklet notes about composer Paul Patterson who I discovered studied trombone at the Royal Academy of Music before concentrating on composition. Patterson’s teachers were Richard Stoker, Elisabeth Lutyens and Richard Rodney Bennett. In 1994 he was selected to represent Britain in series of 50 works to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death. These were being broadcast by Hungarian radio on the European Broadcasting Union. Patterson’s contribution to the series is his single movement Soliloquy. This virtuosic showpiece for solo clarinet is a paraphrase on a theme from the fifth movement of Bartók’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra. Bradbury awakens the Soliloquy from its generally carefree disposition with sporadic jazzy salvos demanding considerable skill and brilliance.

William Lloyd Webber was a student of Vaughan Williams at the RCM becoming in 1946 a professor at the college and teaching harmony and counterpoint. Lloyd Webber wrote a suite of six Country Impressions in 1960 for a variety of wind instruments with piano accompaniment. One of this series was Frensham Pond, Aquarelle. The picturesquely titled miniature Frensham Pond (not On Frensham Pond as stated in the notes) is to my ears one of the most attractive works that Lloyd Webber wrote. Frensham pond is situated close to Farnham in Surrey and in the score the players give a sunny and endearing performance that evokes a gentle impression of water, woodland and heath. At just over double the length of Frensham Pond, the earlier score Air and Variations bore a dedication to, "Frederick Thurston and his pupils at the RCM". With adroitness and affection the partners relish the variety of mood and Bradbury seems to savour the increased opportunity for virtuoso clarinet display.

Bliss, who also studied with Stanford at the RCM, developed into one of the most influential figures in British music and was regarded for some years as an enfant terrible. Following his knighthood in 1950 he was awarded the prestigious appointment as Master of the Queen’s Musick. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 tragically took the life of Bliss’s brother Kennard and the impressive Pastoral, a fitting lamentation for clarinet and piano, was composed soon after. Bliss clearly enjoyed writing for the clarinet and in 1932 wrote a well regarded Clarinet Quintet for Thurston. I consider the Pastoral to be one of Bliss’s finest works and the partnership of Bradbury and Cryer demonstrate their considerable affection for the score. One feels swept way on a tide of haunting emotion joining Bliss on a rare quasi-pastoral excursion.

Perhaps the finest performed and recorded rival version of English clarinet music likely to be encountered in the catalogues are from Thea King and Clifford Benson from 1989 at St George’s, Brandon Hill on Hyperion Dyad CDD22027. The Hyperion set duplicates the Finzi, Hurlstone and Bliss scores and is coupled with the Stanford Clarinet Sonata, Ferguson Four Short Pieces, Howells Clarinet Sonata, Reizenstein Arabesques and the Cooke Clarinet Sonata.

As usual I sound tested this disc on six or so different CD players before writing about the sound quality. This Naxos disc recorded at the Wathen Hall in Barnes was not one that immediately sounded appealing as on two of my players some peak level regulation was necessary to tone down the fierceness, although there were no problems with my other players. After the required adjustment I was left with a consistently warm and bright, clear and well balanced sound.

Hugh Prew was it seems the dedicatee of Bax’s Sonata and a member of the composer’s cricket team. This fact has inspired the author of the booklet notes to give over a whole page to cricket references in the form of a timeline that links the composition dates of the scores to key events in the English cricket year. The inclusion of these cricket statistics, extraneous to the music, seems to have been researched at the expense of relevant information on the actual scores. Unless I’m mistaken nowhere does it mention that both Roxburgh’s Four Wordsworth Miniatures and Patterson’s Soliloquy are works for solo clarinet not clarinet and piano.

This Naxos disc is a splendid achievement and clarinet soloist John Bradbury, supported by James Cryer, make a strong case for this collection of English clarinet music; much of which is rarely heard. I especially enjoyed Hurlstone’s delightful Four Characteristic Pieces and Finzi’s Five Bagatelles are sublime.

Michael Cookson


 


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