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British Clarinet Music
Charles Harford LLOYD (1849-1919) Suite in the Old Style (1914) [9:48]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Three Intermezzi Op.13 (1879) [8:03]; Sonata in F major Op.129 (1911) [18:25]
William Yeates HURLSTONE (1874-1906) Four Characteristic Pieces (1899) [14:34]
Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960) Three Pieces (1957) [07:56]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Six Bagatelles Op.23 (1943) [13:49]
Alessandro Travaglini (clarinet); Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 21 February and 25 May 2009, Studio L'Eremo, Lessona, Italy. DDD
SHEVA SH021 [72:25]

Experience Classicsonline

This is an important release for all enthusiasts of British Music. Six major works are presented from five composers who were all key players in the English Musical Renaissance. Four of the works will be well known to most listeners who specialise in clarinet music and the other two are either 'first recordings' or at least first complete recordings. Typically the playing on this CD is convincing and technically impressive and presents these works in the best possible light. The players are manifestly enthusiastic about this music and communicate this through performance and interpretation.

A study of the CD catalogues is interesting. Only the Gigue of Lloyd's Suite has been issued before. In fact, apart from the composer's church music there appears to be only one other chamber work currently available - the Trio for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano. Stanford fares a little better with two recordings of the Three Intermezzi and five of the magnificent Sonata. Hurlstone's Four Characteristic Pieces are well represented with four editions, but it is Finzi that takes pride of place. On the Arkiv listings there are some twelve versions of his well-known Five Bagatelles. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs' Three Pieces here receive their first recording.

For most cognoscenti, C.H. Lloyd is ever associated with the organ loft and choir stalls. Yet he was a notable teacher who included Herbert Brewer and George Butterworth among his pupils. But he was also a composer, and wrote a considerable amount of music. Most of it appears to be liturgical, but includes a number of songs, piano pieces, organ works and a few chamber works. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the cantata Hero and Leander which is not currently in the repertoire.

The present Suite in the Old Style is a delightful confection. This is not pastiche baroque but is a really an Edwardian 'take' on what music 'should' have been like in 'olden times'. It is not unfair to suggest that Parry is an exemplar for this music, but certainly Lloyd brings colour and imagination to this charming work. The Suite was composed in 1914 and has five movements: Prelude, Allemande, Minute (q.v.) Sarabande and Gigue.

The two works by Charles Villiers Stanford are well-established in the repertoire. Certainly the clarinet was an important instrument for the composer - there was the great Concerto Op.80 (1902) and the two Fantasies for Clarinet and String Quartet from the early nineteen-twenties. However the earliest composition for the instrument was the Three Intermezzi from 1879. The Clarinet Sonata did not follow until 1911.

The Intermezzi are truly lovely pieces. It is 'conventional' to suggest that Brahms is 'not far away' and that one of the exemplars was Schumann and his Romances for Oboe and Piano. Yet there is a certain magic about these pieces that must surely be recognised as Stanford's own. Although these Intermezzi are not 'Irish' in feel, the wit and the charm of the Dublin-born composer is never far away. They were composed in 1879 and were first performed at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert the following year.

The major work on this CD is the great Stanford Clarinet Sonata Op.129 which was completed in 1911 and was dedicated to Oscar Street. The opening movement is in Sonata form and certainly nods toward Brahms in a number of places. Christopher Howell has written elsewhere that '…opinion has been divided as to whether the outer movements are merely efficient Brahms clones or something more.' He suggested that from his point of view this Sonata never lacked 'emotional engagement or personality'. I feel that we have to accept that Brahms was a major influence on Charles Villiers Stanford and live with it. No-one would choose to criticise a composer who was influenced by Messiaen or Stravinsky - so why must people have a go at Stanford? Influences are important - it is what the composer does with them that matters. My opinion is that the present Sonata is an important work that reveals Stanford's personality and deserves to be judged on that basis. The heart of the work is the beautiful Caoine (Keen) which is an Irish lament. There is little in the clarinet literature of this or any country to set against this music. It is deep, moving and quite simply gorgeous.

There seems to be a little confusion as to the musical status of William Yeates Hurlstone's Four Characteristic Pieces. On the one hand it could be argued that they are fundamentally light music - designed more for the salon rather than the recital room. However the opening Ballade is robust and complex in its conception and could not be classified as light in any sense of the word. It is long-ish piece that explores a wide range of moods and musical expression. The Croon Song is perhaps on the cusp of being a popular offering, yet this is music of considerable depth and has a kind of Celtic mistiness about it that defies classification. It is with the Intermezzo that the listener hears a nod to Palm Court. This is attractive and well wrought music that is emotionally a long way from the Ballade. The final Scherzo is once again end-of-the-pier music that is desperately trying to be witty. It never quite succeeds. Perhaps the problem with these pieces is one of balance? However, no single piece could really stand on its own: each is dependent on each other for better or worse.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs has been a little bit slow in being rediscovered. Most of the works that have been recorded are songs, although there is a fine Hyperion disc of orchestral works, 'Dale & Fell' and the Marco Polo CD of his First and Third Symphonies which I believe is available as an MP3 download but not on disc. There's also his Second Symphony Odysseus on Dutton. One of the problems in coming to terms with Gibbs is that he has such a large catalogue of works - there are more than three dozen major chamber pieces alone and it is difficult to know where to begin the exploration. The present Three Pieces are worthy of revival. It would be easy to dismiss Armstrong Gibbs as a composer belonging to the so-called Pastoral School of composition or at least someone who was not afraid to write in a largely traditional style. Yet there is a complexity and depth to much of his music that goes beyond the stylistic factors normally associated with this genre. The Three Pieces, although melodic and approachable have a certain almost acerbic quality that occasionally borders on sarcasm. The sleeve-notes are absolutely correct in describing these pieces as 'bitter-sweet.' The three movements are a lively Shadow March, a more relaxing Air and a lighter- hearted Caprice with an attractive middle section.

The Five Bagatelles by Gerald Finzi are well-known along with the impressive Clarinet Concerto both of which are highly regarded by performers and listeners alike. The Bagatelles were composed for the clarinettist Pauline Juler. Although they were completed in 1943 they do not reflect the international situation, perhaps because they had evolved over many years. They are largely optimistic in mood and seldom descend into melancholy although there are one or two moments which darken the horizon. After an exuberant opening, the Prelude has a relaxed middle section. The three middle movements are a treat for Finzi fans. Both the poetic Romance and the trouble-free Carol are gorgeous miniatures that are in the composer's reflective style. The latter had its origin in a tune written for Herbert Howells' children. The Forlana has a touch of the folk tune about it as it makes its gentle progress. The last movement is a Fughetta which brings the work to a satisfying close. Travaglini and Howell capture the balance of this work and manage to impress upon the listener that although these pieces are entitled Bagatelles, they are definitely not things of little value or importance. 
There are a couple of criticisms of this CD - for example the programme notes seem to be a little bit lacking in substance. The presentation of the liner-notes is poor quality with a less than inspiring picture of the Malverns? Furthermore, the print is tiny, and I struggled to read it! Yet this can be all forgiven, for the playing is convincing and impressive - most especially the stunningly beautiful Caoine from the Sonata. It is so important to play this piece well - for it perhaps one of the greatest of Stanford's Irish-influenced pieces.

John France 

see also review by Nick Barnard


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