Deep Light: Clarinet Masterpieces
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1926)
Grand Duo Concertant, op.48 (1816) [17:54]
Gerald FINZI (1901-56)
Five Bagatelles, op.23 (1943-45) [15:05]
Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Six Studies on English Folk Song (1926) [8:16]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Fantasiestücke, op.73 (1849) [11:02]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Tema con Variazioni (1974) [8:58]
Cristo Barrios (clarinet)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. 2011, Auditório Antonio Lecuona Conservatorio Superior de Música de Canarias and Conservatorio Profesional de Musica de Tenerife.
IBS CLASSICAL IBS42018 [62:23]

Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, op.48 (1816) immediately sets the tone of this outstanding CD from IBS Classical. Originally conceived as a ‘sonata’, the composer felt that the present title was more fitting for its fearsomely virtuosic content. Both players are faced by equal technical difficulties rather than the accompaniment being subservient to the soloist. Weber began the Grand Duo Concertante, op. 48, in 1815 and completed it the following year. The premiere was given in Berlin during 1817: the clarinet soloist was Heinrich Baermann and Weber played the piano.

The Concertant is written in three movements. The opening is a lively, and sometimes impassioned, debate between the soloists. Occasionally this gets out of hand, and both players seem to be arguing at once. All ends well, however: there is no lasting falling out of the protagonists. Formally, this ‘Allegro Con Fuoco’ is written in sonata form. The slow movement is a poignantly reflective ‘andante con moto.’ The finale is a breezy Rondo (allegro): there are some darker, even ominous, episodes in what is typically pure sunshine. The virtuosity of the present soloists is obvious from the first to the last bar. Both survive the tremendous complexities of this piece with assurance. Their performance confirms that the Grand Duo Concertant is one of the great ‘warhorses’ of the clarinet repertoire.

Recent years have witnessed the most welcome reappraisal of Gerald Finzi. Classic FM has two of his works in their ‘Hall of Fame’: the present Bagatelles and the beautiful Eclogue for piano and strings. Also, regularly heard on that station, are the Romance and extracts from the Clarinet Concerto. There is a view that Finzi is always ‘pastoral’ in his compositions. Although it is true that he did not flirt with modernism or serialism, there are several works that do not fall into the ‘ruminative’ mood. Think of his Cello Concerto for example: this is hardly ‘cow and gate’ music.

The Five Bagatelles, written between 1941 and 1945 sit in a sort of halfway house. Certainly, the peaceful ‘Romance’, the fond ‘Carol’ and the reflective ‘Forlane’ are largely ‘pastoral’ and retrospective in their effect. But even here, there is occasionally something a little more hard-edged. The opening ‘Prelude’ and the final ‘Fughetta’ are much more dramatic and powerful in expression than may be expected. But Finzi being Finzi never overdoes the dissonance and always controls his music with a sensitive lyricism.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies on English Folk Song (1926) have long been favourites of mine. I have fond memories of playing the piano accompaniment for a cellist now sadly dead. Originally written for cello and piano, RVW dished them up in several versions, including violin, viola and for clarinet. These studies reflect the honest to goodness simplicity that underscores the essence of the folksongs, on which the work is based. The final movement is more energetic than the prevailing contemplative mood of the preceding five. For me, the most moving is the second number, ‘Spurn Point.’ The duo plays them with great skill and a tender enthusiasm.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op.73 opens with a beautiful song-like piece, reflecting ‘intimate, introspective music, hesitant and reflective’ rather than confident. The second piece is equally thoughtful, but has a much more positive clarinet part supported by a rippling piano accompaniment. The final number is the most technically complex. This piece is infused with exuberance and excitement that is only tempered by a melancholic middle section. Nevertheless, the work ends on a hugely positive note. These three pieces were composed in 1849 and exist in versions for violin and viola.

Jean Françaix is a composer I would like to spend time exploring. I have no excuse, as there are many recordings dedicated to his music. Forty-odd years ago, there was a wee vogue for his L'horloge de flore, for oboe and orchestra (1959) offered on a recording made by Andre Previn (RCA LSB-4094). The Tema con Variazioni was written in 1974 as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire. The work was dedicated to the composer’s grandson, Olivier. After the theme, which musically ‘contrives’ the syllables ‘O-li-vier’, Françaix presents six short, but captivating variations, which range from a meditation on a summer’s day through to a Parisian jazz-club. This music, by reason of being a ‘test piece’, is technically difficult, especially for the clarinettist. As the liner notes suggest, the chief challenge being ‘the concealment of the fearsome technical demands beneath the work’s irreverent, carefree charm.’ It is my major discovery of ‘the day’ and may well lead me to an investigation of the fascinating music of Jean Françaix.

The liner notes (French and English) are most helpful and contain more-than-sufficient information to appreciate and enjoy this recital. They are written as a joint effort by the soloists. Included are the usual soloists’ biographies. I have no issues with any part of this CD’s production: The recording is ideal and the performances by Cristo Barrios (clarinet) and Andrew West (piano) are superb.

This new disc presents an exciting, varied and enjoyable programme. It is an ideal introduction to ‘Clarinet Masterpieces.’ All the pieces I know quite well, except the Jean Françaix: this latter is a rare discovery and a delightful little gem.

John France