Clarinet Classics was founded twenty years ago by clarinettist Victoria Soames Samek and her brother Nicolas Soames (not
the Tory MP). Recently the label's team took on pedagogue Paul Harris as a 'student liaison consultant', and in this recent release from the label the two friends join forces for a "musical celebration" of Harris's small-scale clarinet music, many in premiere recordings.
'Small-scale' is the operative word here. In his notes, Harris write that the first movement of the opening Clarinet Sonatina, all two minutes and six seconds of it, constitutes "one of the longest tunes I've ever written"! So it is that, though 79 minutes is a very generous running time, it is
divided into 49 tracks, with almost a half lasting under a minute. In that sense, Harris is truly the miniaturist's miniaturist! Add in the fact that several of the works are suites and the listener is well prepared for a light and generally light-hearted programme, where the emphasis is always on lyricism rather than emotional or intellectual depth.
On the other hand, some of the pieces do have slightly more serious or at least reflective overtones, if not undertones. For example, the Sonata da Camera for solo clarinet has contemplative passage-work, likewise Swiftly, written for the clarinettist Charlotte Swift. These two pieces and Train Music, for wind quintet - the clarinet for once stepping out of the limelight - the Trio and Visions, are all imaginative, effective pieces that deserve wider currency, even recalling at times Poulenc.
Among the most instantly memorable items are the three that involve a human voice. The six fleeting and rather dated Clerihew Songs incorporate some witty musical references. The Unhappy Aardvark
is not unlike Poulenc's Babar the Elephant
in miniature, and veteran Shakespearean actor Robert Hardy gives it the full works. It and Cat and Mouse
are splendid pieces for younger children to listen to, along the lines of Peter and the Wolf
. There is plenty of humour elsewhere too, such as in the luxuriantly-named Fantastical Micro-Variations on a Theme by Mozart
, and in the Introduction, Theme and Variations, which should go down well at Christmas.
What is clear from this CD is that Harris has a knack of being able to shake lovely melodies out of his sleeve almost at will - he comments in the notes that he even wrote the six-movement Trio in one day - and to sew them together into attractive lyrical bundles that are bound to please all but the most 'hardline' audiences.
Though Harris's music can seldom be described as virtuosic or even likely to cause any professional to break into too much of a sweat, he is treated to sterling silver performances by all involved, although Karen Radcliffe's singing voice makes her sound much older than she appears to be. Victoria Soames Samek plays a starring role in every piece, and for that deserves special praise. In the biographies she is described as "one of the most exciting and versatile clarinettists playing in the UK today" - even if her label does say so itself! Pianist Michael Bell runs her a close second in terms of application.
Soames Samek, Bell and East Winds recorded a companion album to this one at the very same time, a birthday tribute to Richard Rodney Bennett - see review
. Curiously there is no biographical information in the booklet on Harris - a three-line 'Personal Note' and his own comments on the pieces will have to suffice, unless recourse is made to Harris's website
, which is as high-tech baroque as his music is straightforward.
"Don't miss the added bonus of a live interview between Victoria Soames Samek and Paul Harris", cautions the label. The thirteen minutes of it can be viewed on Youtube here
, although it is not live!
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