Aaron COPLAND (1900 – 1990)
Clarinet Concerto (1947) [17:18]
Suite: Appalachian Spring (1944) [25:57]
Gerald FINZI (1901 -1956)
Clarinet Concerto (1949) [27:18]
Romance (1928) [7:51]
Sarah Williamson (clarinet)
Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
rec. 15-16 October 2009, Townsend Hall, Shipston–on–Stour. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD 244 [78:12]


At first sight this might seem to be an unusual coupling – under no circumstances could Finzi, the quintessential Englishman in music, and Copland, classical America personified, be considered suitable bedfellows. Which just proves how wrong we are in our assumptions concerning music. What makes these two Clarinet Concertos, Appalachian Spring and the little Romance sit so well together is that their respective composers brilliantly sing their country resplendent – if you will forgive me for mangling Walt Whitman, an American poet much beloved by English composers! Talk about cross-fertilisation.

Ms Williamson plays the opening, slow, section of Copland’s Concerto to perfection, with a good line, perfect breath control and an understanding of the understatedness of the music. This is as good, if not slightly better, than Benny Goodman, for whom the work was written. Goodman’s recording is available on Sony 074644222722, coupled with other works written for himself and Woody Herman. A cadenza links the two sections of the work and it has the accolade of a separate track all to itself – although why anyone would want to access this section alone is beyond me. The second part is fast and rhythmic, the latter part being a slow-drag jazz-inflected piece and it is here that most British performers come unstuck; Ms Williamson, unfortunately, is one of them. When playing a piece such as Rhapsody in Blue, the way to realise its jazziness is to play it exactly as written and the same is true of this part of the Copland work. Too many performers insist on slightly playing around with the notated rhythms which gives the music an unpleasant quality of disjointedness. Apart from this obvious miscalculation this is a very good performance indeed and could almost be a top recommendation were it not for Ms Williamson’s disinclination to play the music exactly as written. The orchestra, of strings, piano and harp, are forthright and powerful and give exactly the right support to the soloist.

The Finzi is a big work in every way. It is in the expected pastoral tradition, with bags of good tunes, a heart-warming slow movement, surrounded by fast music, the first a tersely argued sonata-form and the finale a fun rondo. It is impossible not to like this work for it brings a smile to the face at almost every moment. Ms Williamson is a fine clarinettist and she has the stamina and interpretive intelligence to make this work a special occasion. However, the recording is rather dull, lacking in bloom so the strings lack the rich, ripe, quality, which is essential in this music. Also, in the first movement cadenza, the acoustic changes, make me think it was recorded in an empty room, after the orchestra had gone home; there sounds, at times, as if there are two clarinets trying to play in unison. It’s a very odd sound. Ultimately, good though this performance is, it cannot hold a candle to John Denman’s superb performance, with Vernon Handley and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (currently available on Lyrita SRCD 236, coupled with Yo Yo Ma’s performance of Finzi’s Cello Concerto) which has never been bettered, although Janet Hilton with Bryden Thomson and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (Carlton Classics BBCRD 9119 in a mixed programme of English music – no longer available) give him a good run for his money.

As to the rest of the programme, Finzi’s Romance is well done but the recording gives the violins a very hard sheen which makes for uncomfortable listening. It’s good to have a new recording of the original 13 instrument version of Appalachian Spring – even if it is only the well known suite and not the full ballet. The playing is very good indeed, but it’s also somewhat laboured. At times I was conscious of the music dragging, and I get no feel of the dance. The sound is, at times, boxy, indeed on this disk there appear to be three different acoustics!

A fascinating programme but it’s not one to which I would return for there is insufficient authority to the performances of the orchestral works, and Ms Williamson is slightly wayward in the Copland. The best Appalachian Spring, in the original version, is still Copland’s own (Sony 696998932326, coupled with the composer’s interpretations of the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, Billy the Kid Suite, Danzon Cubano, El Salon Mexico, the Nonet for strings and a rehearsal of Appalachian Spring) and the Finzi Romance is best served by Boult and the London Philharmonic (Lyrita SRCD 239 – in a varied all-Finzi programme).

This is a very good attempt to create an interesting programme from music seemingly so different yet written at the same time. Unfortunately, there are better versions of all the works readily available and I would urge anyone wishing to investigate any of these pieces to go to the disks I have mentioned for lasting, and repeated, listening pleasure.

Bob Briggs