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Clarinet Goes To Town
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
John Lenehan (piano)
Paul Clarvis (percussion)
Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello))
rec. 23-25 February 2016, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales

Emma Johnson is a very versatile clarinettist. She plays all the concertos for her instrument, runs her own chamber group and has formed a jazz trio whose title is the same as that of this collection. With it she has been touring a successful concert programme and now we have the recording. The idea behind it is to explore the roots of the idiom and most, but not all, of the works here have some connection with jazz. None of them were originally written for her instrument. Most are in arrangements for her trio, with pianist John Lenehan and percussionist Paul Clarvis, but five have been arranged for clarinet with string quartet, here the Carducci String Quartet. I find most of these arrangements very acceptable, with only two exceptions. The added riffs and syncopation do not suit Joplin’s Maple House Rag, which I have always felt goes better straight. As for the arrangement of a Chopin Nocturne this seems to me the one failure on the disc.

Clarinettists tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum which is perky at one end and soulful at the other. Emma Johnson, though capable of covering the range, seems to me to prefer her music perky, and the perkier it is the happier she sounds. So Grand Boubousse, China Boy, Sheik of Araby and Bernstein’s Riffs go splendidly. Giampieri’s Carnival of Venice, which is in fact a set of variations on a very well-known tune, goes at a speed I would have though unbelievable, so fast do the notes go whirling round. I felt she was marginally less happy in the slower pieces, so Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Dvořák’s Indian Lament were comparatively uninteresting, though I must concede that there is some delicate playing in Ravel’s Habanera.

Her playing style is very clean. She allows herself to swing, use blue notes, scoops and slides and some vibrato, which is never excessive except perhaps in Bechet’s Petite Fleur. She is always in tune and neither squawks nor honks. There are no duff notes, heavy breathing or clatter of keywork. From the little I know about actual jazz clarinettists and clarinet fanciers I think they may find this a trifle strange as they may expect some roughness in the playing and even like it. It would be like hearing a foreigner speak absolutely immaculate English with no grammatical slips or slang words at all: it is completely correct while being a touch unidiomatic. My preference is for clean playing.

I must include her collaborators in this general praise. The pianist John Lenehan, who has recorded such serious things with her as the Brahms sonatas, really gets into the spirit of this project with some splendidly enthusiastic and virtuosic solos. Percussionist Paul Clavis has some very nice touches, and I greatly enjoyed his contributions to Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. The Carducci String Quartet display their versatility particularly in Piazzolla’s Libertango and Monti’s Czárdás and also in the closing Brahms Lullaby, which is most touching.

The recording slightly favours the clarinet, not surprisingly, and needs a little care in setting the controls to get the balance right but then is very acceptable. The booklet note by Emma Johnson herself gives the background to the project and notes on the pieces, in English only. There are also biographies of the other performers.

My occasional slight reservations should not detract from the fact that this is a winning disc. If you like Emma Johnson, clarinettists or a jazz-influenced programme, go for it.

Stephen Barber


1. PIAZZOLLA: Libertango [2:19]
2. GERSHWIN: Walking the Dog [2:46]
3. TEMPLETON: Bach goes to Town [1:32]
4. Zequinha de ABREU: Tico-Tico no Fubá [2:24]
5. JOPLIN: Maple Leaf Rag [2:31]
6. MONTI: Czárdás [4:21]
7. RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise [4:16]
8. RAVEL: Pičce en forme de Habanera [3:06]
9. DEBUSSY: Golliwog’s Cakewalk [2:57]
10. SIMEON: Grand Boubousse [3:17]
11. BOUTELJE/WINFREE: China Boy [2:04]
12. William LLOYD WEBBER: Frensham Pond [2:24]
13. DVOŘÁK: Indian Lament [4:00]
14. TRAD.: St James’ Infirmary Blues [4:09]
15. BUSSE/MUELLER/JOHNSON: Wang Wang Blues [3:13]
16. SNYDER/SMITH/WHELLER: Sheik of Araby [2:43]
17. Turner LAYTON/Henry CREAMER: After You’ve Gone [2:27]
18. BECHET: Petite Fleur [4:07]
19. BERNSTEIN: Riffs from Prelude, Fugue and Riffs [4:17]
20. COPLAND: Simple Gifts [2:03]
21. CHOPIN: Nocturne Op. 37 No. 1 [5:17]
22. ELGAR: Canto Popolare [3:32]
23. GIAMPIERI: Carnival of Venice [3:12]
24. BRAHMS: Lullaby Op. 49 No. 4 [2:17]



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