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Nigel CLARKE (b. 1960)
Music for Symphonic Wind Orchestra
Mysteries of the Horizon: Concerto for Cornet and Wind Orchestra (2012) [22:28]
Symphony No. 1, A Richer Dust, for speaker and wind orchestra (2014) [48:30]
Harmen Vanhoorne (cornet)
H Stephen Smith (speaker)
Middle Tennessee State University Wind Ensemble/Reed Thomas
rec. 2015/17, MTSU Wright Hall, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Two substantial scores for wind orchestra adding in one case a cornet solo and in the other a speaker. Unsurprisingly these are first recordings.

Clarke's four-movement Cornet Concerto has a fanciful Magritte-inspired title and each movement likewise: I The Menaced Assassin; II The Dominion of Light; III The Flavour of Tears; IV The Discovery of Fire. These suggest a fantasy game for the X-Box. In fact, it's a flightily accessible piece. Amid the acrobatics in the two outward-facing movements there's plenty of positive and testing feel-good activity. As for his style, it's a little like a John Williams film score - melody meets supple and electric fantasy. The second movement is mysterious with the soloist still called on to look lively and jump through hoops … but quietly. The most successful movement is the crooning and consolatory The Flavour of Tears. Harmen Vanhoorne is in complete command whether in display or in a few islands of humour. Clarke assures us in the liner-note that the solo can also be taken by a trumpet. The work began in a brass band version but was rewritten for wind orchestra.

The words used in A Richer Dust, Clarke's First Symphony, are by a long roll-call of writers and assembled into a sequence by Malene Sheppard Skærved. They focus on humanity's addiction to the deathly consumption of lives and wellbeing through war. In this work Clarke is no passive onlooker; his role is a furious protester. In every movement of the symphony there are instances of the orchestra speaking words but usually quietly.

Throughout the Symphony the atmosphere is more tense and weighty than in the concerto. That said the symphonic aspect is inevitably de-focused by the narration although this is done with plenty of imagination by H Stephen Smith. In this pattern Clarke follows in the tradition of Copland's Lincoln Portrait but over a much longer time-span. The movement titles give a good flavour of what to expect bearing in mind that in his music Clarke is not going to take you anywhere near Darmstadt. The titles are: I Still We Drudge in this Dark Maze; II Living Picture of the Dead; III Other Flowers Rise; IV The Larks, Still Bravely Singing.

Clarke's technique includes having the words spoken over the music. Issues of balance are adeptly handled. The music in the first movement broods, heaves and power-steps its remorseless way forward in a blood-curdling march. More sinister, spiralling, wailing, spectral and skeletal pages dominate the Living Picture of the Dead. It's a litany of loss and destruction. I like the way the narration slots in naturally, if disturbingly, with the music. The two (words and music) are interdependent. It is as if the flow of words and ideas are integral to the score; just as it should be. This is most tellingly achieved at the end of the second movement.

Other Flowers Rise is a horrific boiling picture - very active and militaristic in the manner of one of the nightmare episodes in Malcolm Arnold's late symphonies. It's all searing and rasping brass with belligerent clashing percussion. The image is of a nightmare horde that half shambles and half tramps across a denuded cordite-smoking landscape. The finale begins with the sort of quietude practised by Andrzej Panufnik in the outer movements of his Sinfonia Elegiaca. In fairness Clarke is, at this point, more incident-packed and varied. Nobility and virtue are found in the narration. This is in fact the most moving and civilised of the four movements. The recitation is of what most of us regard as the good things of life. This listing meets music that feels as if it is integral to the eternal humanist beatitudes spoken by the narrator. The movement is over 13 minutes long. After a fairly passive and inspiring confidence in the future it rises to a stirring portrayal of war. It's impressive and I liked it a great deal but does it fit with the message? Clarke is no doubt making the point that heroic portrayal of war, flags flying and exultant shouts from the troops, is one thing but reality is another. The words intoned by the narrator, after all that heroic brouhaha, drive that message home.

Nigel Clarke already has a presence in the catalogue; not numerous but to be noted. Toccata is already out there with his Music for Thirteen Solo Strings while Naxos have a military band disc.

The notes, in English only, are fulsome. There are essays by the composer, by the writer and by the conductor. All the words are provided.

This well recorded disc is definitely worth trying although some of us will have to adjust our ears to the sound of the wind orchestra.

Rob Barnett



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