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Joseph HOROVITZ (b.1926)
The Essential Collection
Sonatina for clarinet and piano (1981) [14:43]
Arabesque for clarinet and piano (1987) [3:03]
Two Majorcan Pieces for clarinet and piano (1956) [3:50]
Concertante op.1, for clarinet and string quartet (1948) [8:05]
Concertino for clarinet and string quartet (1957) [12:47]
Diversions on a Familiar Theme for clarinet and piano (1997) [7:36]
Variations on a Theme of Paganini for saxophone quartet (1974) [7:49]
Jazz Suite for clarinet quartet (1980) [5:50]
Victoria Soames-Samek (clarinet and saxophone), Michael Bell (piano), Bingham String Quartet, Reedplay (clarinet/saxophone quartet)
rec. in the presence of the composer, Keele University Chapel, Staffs. UK, January 2014; All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
CLARINET CLASSICS CC0060 [63:13]

Joseph Horovitz is probably best known for his delightful and witty ‘lighter’ works – Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo (Dutton CDLF 8120) but also the Hoffnung-inspired Horrortorio, Summer Sunday, and the Jubilee Toy Symphony. He is also an outstandingly versatile composer, who has, as this excellent issue shows, great skill in instrumental writing, with a particular empathy for wind instruments.

I am glad they chose to begin the CD with the fine Clarinet Sonatina of 1981, written for Gervase de Peyer. This has a deceptively relaxed first movement, followed by a truly beautiful slow movement. This put me in mind of the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet; high praise indeed. It has that sense of dignity and resignation that you find in the Mozart, as well as an unbroken, sustained lyrical line. That gives me the opportunity to compliment the sensitive musicians Victoria Soames-Samek — the moving force behind this CD, I suspect — and pianist Michael Bell. Soames-Samek, whose playing I have admired for many years, produces a wonderful sound, with just that hint of vibrato used to highlight expressive moments. The finale is lively and full of humour and unpredictable rhythms. There is, too, a certain jazz influence here and there, something that is a characteristic of Horovitz’s music, and often gives it that lightness of touch that makes it so endearing.

The next few tracks consist mostly of earlier and less substantial works. The Arabesque of 1987 was written as an examination piece (for flute) for the ABRSM, while the Two Majorcan Pieces were inspired by the composer’s honeymoon on that island. They are tiny but highly attractive numbers, with subtle flavours of Spanish music. The first is titled Paguera, the second Valdemosa.

The Concertante for Clarinet and Strings was Horovitz’s first published composition, written towards the end of his studies with Gordon Jacob at the RCM. The composer explains, in the useful booklet notes, that Jacob encouraged him to model the piece on a classical example; he took that advice, and shaped it along the lines of Weber’s Concertino for clarinet. However, stylistically, it owes more to composers such as Walton and to Jacob himself. It is very much an apprentice piece – quite na´ve in its sudden burst of fugal writing, which almost immediately gives up rather despondently - yet the composer’s instinctive understanding of his instrumental forces is already very much in evidence. See also review of this work on ASV (Slaymark; Culot)

The Concertino for Clarinet and String quartet is a reworking of Schubert’s Violin Sonata D.384. I say ‘re-working’ rather than ‘arrangement’ because Horovitz has been much more creative than simply giving the clarinet the solo part and arranging the piano accompaniment for strings. He has re-imagined the work, and in this form it can make an excellent companion piece, in a concert of music for clarinet and strings, alongside, say, the above-mentioned Mozart, or Weber or Brahms.

The Diversions are really a free set of variations on the theme of Schumann’s piano piece The Merry Peasant. This came about when Horovitz was asked to compose something for the Queen’s visit to the RCM in 1997. He received a ‘Palace Whisper’ that she had enjoyed playing this piece when she was a child, so the composer duly incorporated it into this jolly little work — here with piano instead of the original string ensemble. By all accounts, it went down very well.

The disc ends with two highly enjoyable ensemble pieces; the Variations on a Theme of Paganini constitute one of his best-known works, though they are probably most often heard in the version for brass quartet. They work very well on saxophones, however, and admirers of his famous Rumpole of the Bailey theme will enjoy the good-natured melancholy of some of the variations. The playing of the Saxophone Quartet, however, is not one of the highlights of the CD – there are a few too many small untidinesses, and some less than perfect intonation. Could this be because these highly versatile performers are all principally clarinettists? Maybe; certainly the playing in the tiny but brilliant Jazz Suite that follows is more polished.

You may also like to sample Horovitz the composer of concertos (Dutton) and other orchestral works (ASV).

This is a splendid and entertaining disc; it reminds me yet again of the extraordinary numbers of brilliantly gifted creative musicians who have operated in this country throughout the past century and more, of whom Horovitz is emphatically one. It sometimes saddens me, while hastening to switch off the moronic outpourings of Britain’s Got Talent and other such cultural disasters, that the 'Great British Public' is blissfully unaware of most of these possessors of the real thing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones