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Rory BOYLE (b.1951)
Sonatina for clarinet and piano [8:37]
Burble for solo clarinet [7:12]
Four Bagatelles [11:25]
Tatty’s Dance [2:24]
Dramatis Personae [12:14]
Di Tre Re e io, for clarinet, viola and piano [18:10]
Fraser Langton (clarinet)
Rosalind Ventris (viola)
James Willshire (piano)
rec. 2016, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
DELPHIAN DCD34172 [60:08]

Scottish composer Rory Boyle has not made his presence particularly strongly felt in the CD catalogues and only the Edinburgh-based label, Delphian, seems to feel his music worthy of extended exposure. An earlier disc released in 2011 introduced us to his solo piano works while this second Delphian disc devoted to his music, features the works for clarinet.

Boyle’s association with the clarinet goes back to his own youth when he studied the instrument at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is now a lecturer in composition at his alma mater – existing in its new manifestation as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – and in 2015 won a British Composer Award for his wind band work, Muckle Flugga. That was only the latest in a series of awards he has won for his music, which encompasses opera, orchestral music, chamber works and scores for film and television.

A former pupil of Lennox Berkeley, his teacher’s influence is extremely potent in the works on this disc, most obviously in the acerbic harmonic language, the sparse textures and the crystalline clarity of the writing. It is also there in the directness of the musical idiom and the clear sense of structure, nowhere more obviously than in the Sonatina of 1979 which pursues a path so utterly logical and coherent that it is almost like walking along with an old friend. Here, the discourse between clarinet and piano is a model of balance and logic, and the innate sense of cohesion between Fraser Langton and James Willshire is vivid. Langton is the master of the smooth, rounded tone, and this comes out in a particularly flowing slow movement, a long-breathed clarinet line delicately supported by gentle touches from the piano. Here is music of great delicacy and poise; although the booklet notes’ suggestion that it possesses “lush sensuality” is not really borne out by this performance. The jaunty finale skips along happily enough despite occasionally lurching off into brief moments of introspection. The lovely throw-away ending from both these players is a real moment to relish.

Berkeley’s own Three Pieces for solo clarinet are staples of the instrument’s repertory, but Boyle goes further with his single-movement Burble of 2012, and written expressively for Langton. Here is a work of extraordinary virtuosity and one which, despite the implications of its title, is both assertive and dramatic – any burbling coming from the passages of soto voce semiquavers which fill the time between great leaps across the register and occasional jazz-inspired vocalisations through the instrument.

References to both Bartok and Schoenberg can be detected in the Four Bagatelles which, like the Sonatina, date from 1979. The first has so much high drama and so many rhetorical gestures that I am tempted to ask whether Boyle originally wrote it after a close encounter with The Miraculous Mandarin. Yet while there are clear references, conscious or otherwise, to Bartok’s big orchestral score, such is the quality of Boyle’s writing, that it sounds perfectly idiomatic in this setting for clarinet and piano. If the title has strong resonances for clarinettists of Gerald Finzi’s own Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, there is not much of a musical connection between them, even in the jagged dance patterns of No.3 or the ebullience of No.4 – where, according to the booklet, the music “compresses into its brief span the expressionist turmoil of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire”.

Altogether more mellow and relaxed, despite its running piano figurations so ably handled by Willshire and its affectionate musical language, Tatty’s Dance reflects its origins as a solo piano work written for the composer’s wife on her 60th birthday. The widely spaced clarinet line has that special quality of sticking itself immediately into the memory and refusing to be dislodged. Not so the bee-like buzzing and moth-like flutterings of the first of the three-movement Dramatis Personae. Composed in 2012 for Langton and Willshire, each movement depicts specific character types, with the first – “Rogue” – described by the composer as “brash and persuasive”. This gloriously energetic performance perfectly captures those two qualities. The second movement – “Shadow” – is “a ghostly image” which is here evoked by some immaculately-paced and spacious playing from both players. The third movement – “Fool” – reveals, according to Boyle, “clownish and idiotic qualities”, but with “an element of pathos”. Again these concepts are compellingly conveyed by these two players.

For the final work, Di Tre Re e io, violist Rosalind Ventris joins the other two to create Trio Dramatis. Written in 2015, the title is drawn from Honegger’s Fifth Symphony and Boyle includes many direct references to that work in this 18-minute single-movement essay for what is a very unusual but, in Boyle’s hands, a very effective combination of instruments. It is the most austere and elusive work on the disc, and often seems more concerned with instrumental timbre than the abstract musical discourse which is such a feature of the other pieces. As a result we hear aspects of Boyle’s musical personality not revealed elsewhere; there’s a clear feel of the English pastoral tradition in some of the reflective duets between viola and clarinet, jazz pops its head around the corner in a series of urgently repeated piano chords, and in the high driving rhythmic momentum often supported by a treading bass line we have a nod towards Stravinsky. It is deeply impressive to hear how Trio Dramatis step through the many rhythmic intricacies of this work so sure-footedly while always maintaining a clear-sighted sense of purpose. Despite a slightly boxy quality to the piano bass, the recorded sound serves the music well.

Marc Rochester



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