The Thurston Connection: English Music for Clarinet and Piano
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Sonata (1934) [14:04]
Roger FISKE (1910-1987) Sonata (1941) [19:55]
Iain HAMILTON (1922-2000) Three Nocturnes, Op. 6 (1951) [11:24]
Hugh WOOD (b.1932) Paraphrase on Bird of Paradise Op. 26 (1983:1985) [12:56]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) Duo Concertante (1986) [10:16]
Nicholas Cox (clarinet) Ian Buckle (piano)
rec. The Friary, Liverpool, 31 August and 1 September 2011
It was only the other day that I suggested to someone that it was time for a reappraisal of the music of Iain Hamilton. Currently there are only a baker’s dozen of his works recorded on some eight CDs listed in the Arkiv website. Considering his large catalogue of music this is a poor showing. Therefore, it was good to find his Three Nocturnes included in this important new CD from the British Music Society.
Three of the pieces on this CD have a connection to the clarinettist Frederick Thurston (1901-1953) who encouraged new music from the pens of the great composers of the day. The liner-notes list a few of them: Arthur Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet, John Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata, Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and Gordon Jacob’s Clarinet Quintet. Over and above these important commissions was the large number of works dedicated to Thurston. These included pieces by Arnold, Howells, Maconchy and the present work by Hamilton. Many famous pieces were also given their UK premieres by Thurston, including Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. The final two compositions on this CD were composed for the present clarinettist, Nicolas Cox.
The approach to this disc must be thoughtful and structured. Even the greatest enthusiasts of British music will find a continuous 68 minutes of clarinet/piano tone somewhat hard going. The best bet is to explore these works chronologically (as presented), beginning with Bax.
The first performance of Bax’s Clarinet Sonata, written 1934, was given by Frederick Thurston and Harriet Cohen at a London Contemporary Music Centre concert at Cowdray Hall on 17 June 1935. Interestingly, it was dedicated to a certain Hugh Prew who was an industrial chemist and amateur clarinettist and was a member of Bax’s West Country cricket team, the Old Broughtonians.
The Sonata is in two movements offering a considerable contrast. Much of the work’s sound-world is elegiac: however, the mood is typically nostalgic rather than melancholic. The opening movement juxtaposes two thematic subject groups: Lewis Foreman has noted that one is heart-on-sleeve and the other is ‘more chromatic and ruminative’.
Nicolas Cox, writing in the liner-notes, has made an interesting suggestion. He points out the ‘intense level of expression [of] the passionate piano interludes’ which permeate the work. He wonders if Bax is ‘encapsulating here his long-term affection for the Sonata’s first pianist, Harriet Cohen’. Unquestionably, there is an attractiveness and poignancy about this music that reflects Cohen’s beauty.
The ‘vivace’ is impressive: into a space of just over five minutes, the composer has compressed a vigorous ‘moto perpetuo’ of which there are hints of Gershwin! This is immediately contrasted with a broader tune before the ‘vivace’ music returns. The work ends cyclically with a reprise of the opening ‘molto moderato’ theme from the first movement.
The overall impression of this music is one of the ‘Celtic Twilight – however, there is not a folk-tune in sight. A formally satisfying piece, this, to my mind, is one of the masterpieces of British clarinet music.
I had never heard any music by Roger Fiske before hearing this present Clarinet Sonata. In fact, he is just a name to me. Fiske was an English musicologist, broadcaster, author and composer: he is best known (where known at all) for his books English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (1973) and his Scotland in Music (1983). Most Internet references appear to concern his work as a music editor. Nicolas Cox has pointed out that Fiske was a poor self-promoter of his compositions.
The Clarinet Sonata is a wartime work, having been composed and dedicated to Frederick Thurston in 1941. It was first heard at a private performance.
From the first note, to the last one feels that this is a difficult, virtuosic piece that tests both performers. The liner-notes mention that Fiske studied with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. However, the work is not beholden to his teacher, although there are moments when the influence is striking.
The Sonata is in three movements; an opening andante, a set of variations and a concluding allegro. The musical sound-world that this work inhabits vacillates between a reflective pastoral sophistication and a jazz-influenced coolness. Certainly, the middle movement describes to perfection a lovely summer’s day on the Downs. Cox suggests that the final ‘allegro molto’ ‘reveals the naivety of a part-time composer’. I feel that this does Fiske an injustice. This Sonata may not match Bax of Howells in its achievement, but what the composer has given the listener is an attractive, reflective and sometimes downright beautiful work that is immediately approachable and often quite beautiful. In many ways the balance of parts between ‘joie de vivre’ and ‘reflection’ make this an appropriate ‘wartime work’. It deserves success.
Iain Hamilton’s Three Nocturnes Op. 6 is my surprise discovery from this CD. These pieces were written in 1951 when the composer was 29 years old: they won the Edwin Evans Memorial Prize of that year and were given their first performance by Frederick Thurston.
The opening ‘Nocturne’, ‘adagio mistico’ immediately justifies its title with its atmospheric, misty mood. The central ‘allegro diabolico’ is less of a nocturne and more of a nightmare – it is defined by being ‘something of the night’: here the ‘clarinet’s ghostly figures and ghoulish outbursts [leap] out of every shadow’. Do not listen to this piece in the dark: scary music indeed. The last movement, a ‘lento tranquillo’ is eerie rather than scary. Gone are the horrors, but the mood is enigmatic. These are three pieces that are full of instrumental colour and individuality. They prognosticate a composer with whom I can do business: if it were only possible to hear a deal of his music.
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Hugh Wood’s Paraphrase on ‘Bird of Paradise.’ Then that is sometimes how prejudice works: I have always assumed that Wood’s music was ‘difficult’ and somewhat unapproachable. Typically, I have avoided him. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is the he owes more to Germanic compositional styles and theories than to British mores. The present work was composed for Nicolas Cox in 1985 who had studied with Wood at Churchill College Cambridge. Included in the liner-notes is a major essay by Malcolm MacDonald on the Paraphrase, which bears study before listening.
The work is a ‘musical’ paraphrase of Wood’s earlier (1983) setting of Robert Graves poem ‘Bird of Paradise’. Three things need to be said here. Firstly, it is in one continuous movement; however, this is divided into five sections. The first three are variations on the original ‘tune’ from the song. The fourth is the song itself and the final section has a chorale-like setting with echoes of the song’s opening phrases. Secondly, the musical language may not be to everyone’s taste – it is a long way from Bax and Fiske – however, there is consistency and a structure discernible even without sight of the score. Thirdly, this music is truly beautiful: stunning and often moving. It deserves to be a part of the clarinettist’s repertoire.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Duo Concertante (1985) just did not quite hit the spot for me. It was commissioned by Nicolas Cox and Vanessa Latarche as a companion piece to Weber’s Grand duo Concertante. The three sections are played without a break. One of the features of this piece is the cadenzas that make up a large proportion of the proceedings.
Richard Rodney Bennett is an eclectic composer, writing in many styles. Possibly best known for his film music he has adopted a wide of variety of pieces including operas and three symphonies. The Duo Concertante would reside in the ‘softly’ avant-garde department of his music reflecting his ‘dramato-abstract’ style.
Overall, this is an impressive and often stimulating CD. It opened up a number of adventures for me. Beginning with the relatively well-known Bax Sonata to the challenging Hugh Wood ‘Paraphrase’ by way of the ‘conservative’ but well-wrought work by Fiske. The excellent Hamilton and the virtuosic ‘Concertante’ by Bennett. All this music is well played by Nicolas Cox and Ian Buckle. The sound quality is sharp and well-defined. The notes and supplementary essay are excellent. Finally, I appreciated the good ‘cover’ design and the attractive photo of Thea King and Frederick Thurston.

John France
Impressive and often stimulating.