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An English Fantasy: Music for Clarinet and Orchestra
Will TODD (b.1970)
Concerto for Emma
(2009-2015) [18:48]
Paul READE (1943-1997)
Suite
from The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1987) [10:03]
John DANKWORTH (1927-2010)
Clarinet Concerto The Woolwich (1995) [18:40]
Patrick HAWES (b.1958)
Clarinet Concerto (2015) [21:41]
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Philip Ellis
rec. Watford Colosseum, 21-23 Oct 2015
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6328 [69:19]

The British clarinettist, Emma Johnson, is a lively, delightful and eminent presence in the classical music scene. She has been a multiple prize-winner and in 1996 was awarded an MBE for her services to music. Not only has she made many recordings but also she has been the dedicatee of works by John Dankworth, Will Todd, Patrick Hawes, Michael Berkeley, Matthew Taylor and Robin Holloway. She also provides the very personal liner note here although the four composer profiles are by another hand (not identified). These four concertos or concerto-type works inhabit various related English styles but all of them are melodic.

Will Todd is one of the leading voices in British contemporary music. His range is wide: from a jazz mass to accessible choral, from a grand opera Brunel to a violin concerto, from major choral-orchestral to sacred music for choirs. Here he adds to the store of English clarinet concertos. This one goes with a frictionless, swerving swing. It's lyrical, yes, but also carries inflections from blues and jazz.. The finale is punchy, howling and sinuous. The movement titles give a hint: I. Blues and Dance; II. Ballad and III. Funky Tunes.

Lancastrian Paul Reade was something of a presence as a composer for British television. His work included co-writing with Tim Gibson the theme for The Antiques Roadshow as well as - this time without a co-writer - the music for the late-1980s BBC television series The Victorian Kitchen Garden. That music has gone on to develop a life of its own as a look at YouTube will show you. The ballet world appealed to him and he wrote two large-scale efforts: Hobson's Choice (1989) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1996).

Reade wrote the signature tune and incidental music for The Victorian Kitchen Garden, originally for clarinet and harp. A later five-movement suite for clarinet and orchestra was dedicated to Ms Johnson. The movements of this suite are: I. Prelude; II. Spring; III. Mists; IV. Exotica and V. Summer. It's a gentle sorbet of a piece and moves, with its own modesty, away from the jazz of the Todd concerto. The tone is slow, casual and warm with a touch of the easy mastery of Herbert Chappell's Pallisers music. Spring has an Arnoldian lightness, while Mists is picked out poetically with prominence for the harp and clarinet. Summer glides along, easygoing and sentimental.

John Dankworth mentored Johnson early in her career and, as one of her good angels, gave her various opportunities to move onwards and upwards. Dankworth was best known in the jazz scene but made raids into and alliances with the classical world. Some may recall his 1960s collaboration with Matyas Seiber in the shape of the Improvisations for jazz band and symphony orchestra recorded by the LPO and band with Hugo Rignold conducting (Saga XIP 7006, 1962). His well thought of Mariposas suite, paying tribute to various jazz violinists, features on an EM Records disc.

This Clarinet Concerto is in four movements: I. Andante - Faster; II. Cantabile - Reggae; III. Slowly - Nostalgically; IV. Boogie Woogie. The first makes gawky and halting progress. It's dreamy but this is a dream that senses nightmare at the margins and there is mildew there, sighs and even decay worthy of Warlock and Bernard van Dieren. The music then morphs into something bubblingly apt to the instrument. The second movement is a sophisticated meditation, touchingly filmic and then merry. I am not at all sure about the reggae aspect but that hardly matters. The movement Slowly - Nostalgically, evokes for me a picture: a warm gallic impressionistic haze and a punt moored under thickly overhanging osiers. Johnson and Dankworth then shake off this mood with Boogie woogie which at first gambols like a jackanapes. The mood of the penultimate movement soon reaches out its tendrils with a piercingly poignant blade. Then comes a swirl of excitement and a simmering dream. Johnson premiered the Concerto in the Royal Festival Hall with the LPO in 1995. Quite apart from this Concerto Dankworth wrote various smaller-scale pieces for Johnson which she has recorded.

I associate Patrick Hawes' name with major tonal choral-orchestral scores and he has indeed written a significant number of such works. The following have been recorded Lazarus Requiem, Towards the Light and Blue in Blue. There are other examples including Song of Songs (2008), Hearts of England (2008), Te Deum (2011), The Angel of Mons (2014) and Eventide: In Memoriam Edith Cavell (2014). His The Great War Symphony is due its premiere in 2018. Of concertos or concertante works there is just one other: a Pavane from "The Incredible Mrs Ritchie" (2002) for guitar and chamber orchestra. The movements of the Clarinet Concerto bear standard character-tempo titles: I. Allegretto; II. Sarabande; III. Allegro Marziale. The first is all pecked out activity and then a sort of sauntering quietness. A happy smile brings things to a close but none of this is taken at full tilt. The long central Sarabande recalls the Concertino Pastorale of John Ireland and the middle movement of the Finzi Clarinet Concerto, the latter a work championed by Johnson with ASV and Charles Groves in the 1980s. This Sarabande deploys a gleaming skein of sound and a suggestion of heat haze. The finale at first steps up, bustling and busy, like the Dag Wirén Serenade for Strings. As with the Dankworth, but in a different way, this too soon succumbs to a centripetal force that tugs towards sighing melancholy.

A predominance of contentment and poetry with the accent on the understated. Winning ways from Emma Johnson again.

Rob Barnett
 

 

 




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