British Clarinet Sonatas - Volume 1
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Fantasy-Sonata (1943) [13:19]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Sonata in F major, Op. 129 (1911) [24:13]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Pastoral from Two Pieces (1913-14) [4:19]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Sonata in D major (1934) [13:34]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Sonata (1947) [21:47]

Michael Collins (clarinet)
Michael McHale (piano)
rec. 30 April-1 May 2011, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England
CHANDOS CHAN 10704 [72:54]

The prospect of hearing this first volume of British Clarinet Sonatas played by Michael Collins made the heart beat faster. Would the heart still be beating faster after I had played it through a few times? Apart from the obvious exceptions, after far too long in the doldrums, it is good to see many British composers gaining exposure and receiving recordings of their works in numbers that British music enthusiasts could only have dreamt of a couple of decades ago. Like so many recordings of British music this release has the Anglo/British composer and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford at its heart. Included is Stanford’s substantial Clarinet Sonata in F major and three of the other four pieces are from John Ireland; Sir Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells, all former Stanford pupils.
Stanford greatly admired the music of Brahms whom he had met several times the first time briefly at Cologne in 1874. It seems likely that the inspiration for Stanford to compose works for the solo clarinet was Brahms who had written several important masterworks for the instrument: a pair of Clarinet Sonatas; a Clarinet Trio in A minor and a Clarinet Quintet in B minor. Stanford too was clearly fond of the clarinet and wrote: Three Intermezzi for clarinet and piano (1879); a Clarinet Concerto in A minor (1902) originally dedicated to Richard Mühlfeld; the Clarinet Sonata in F major, Op.80 (1911); the Fantasy No. 1 for Clarinet Quintet in G minor (1921) and the Fantasy No. 2 for Clarinet Quintet in F major (1922).

Stanford’s three movement Sonata is dedicated jointly to the amateur clarinettist Oscar W. Street and the professional clarinettist Charles Draper. It was Draper who premièred it in 1916 with another Stanford pupil Thomas Dunhill at the piano. Draper had premièred the Clarinet Concerto in 1903. The opening movement of the Sonata marked Allegro moderato has attractive melodies. It inhabits a pastoral calm; indeed the writing contains only one episode of storm. Caoine is the title of the next movement. The word means Lament or Dirge in Gaelic. It makes for a rather curious and lyrical central movement in which the tempestuous is contrasted with the affectingly calm. There is more lyricism in the final Allegro grazioso. It’s summery and genial as if Stanford is stating how good it is to be alive.
John Ireland completed his Fantasy-Sonata for clarinet and piano in 1943. The score bears a dedication to clarinettist Frederick Thurston (a pupil of Charles Draper) who premièred it with pianist Kendall Taylor at London in 1944. Cast in a single movement Ireland’s score follows Walter Willson Cobbett’s ‘Phantasy’ design intended to promote short single movement scores comprising several contrasting sections. It sports some attractive and often wistful music. The writing does occasionally feel squally. An engaging slow section is intensely emotional and the rhythmic close deploys percussive figures on the piano alongside an agitated clarinet line.
Sir Arthur Bliss’s short Pastoral is the second of the Two Pieces for clarinet and piano. It was composed in 1913/14. The first piece was a Rhapsody and although premièred in 1914 is now thought lost. The highly attractive Pastoral is not as intensely green as one might expect from its title. A dream-like ecstasy is broken only by a short and passionate central section.
Howells’ Sonata for clarinet and piano from 1947 is cast in two substantial sections. It was Frederick Thurston who gave the première with Eric Harrison the following year. There is a direct connection here from Frederick Thurston who married his former pupil the eminent clarinettist Thea King who in turn taught Michael Collins. In the first section I enjoyed the sense of nostalgic yearning that infuses the attractive writing. There are two contrasting moods at times in section two with the clarinet and piano wrapped in a heated and often agitated dialogue. At other times the music feels as calm as a millpond with suggestions of a dark undercurrent.
Arnold Bax was a composition student of Frederick Corder at London’s Royal Academy of Music not the RCM. However, the paths of Bax and Stanford certainly crossed. The first time they met Stanford threw Bax into the deep end by asking him without warning to conduct the RCM orchestra. It seems that Bax had never conducted before. Bax composed his two movement Sonata in 1934 and dedicated it to the amateur clarinettist Hugh Prew. However, it was Frederick Thurston who gave the première in 1935 in London with Harriet Cohen, Bax’s muse and lover. The first movement contains an unpredictable flow of chromatic writing with the often fluctuating tempi producing an unsettling sense of agitation. I was struck by the perpetuum mobile feeling in the second movement. This shifts to conclude in a calmer state.
Collins and McHale make a convincing case for these attractive scores. One senses that Collins is a sensitive musician. He certainly has impressive breath control and produces an attractive timbre. McHale is a poised player who provides sympathetic support and never overpowers the clarinet. The engineers at the popular chamber music recording venue, Potton Hall, have produced an excellent sound quality, clear and well balanced.
I loved every minute of this disc and yes my heart was still beating fast such was the attraction of the music and quality of the playing.
Michael Cookson

I loved every minute of this disc. Leaves the heart beating fast.