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Reawakened: British Clarinet Concertos
Iain HAMILTON (1922-2000)
Concerto for Clarinet and orchestra, op.7 (1950-1) [28:36]
Richard H. WALTHEW (1872-1951)
Concerto for Clarinet (1902, orch. Alfie Pugh) [16:45]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Clarinet Concerto in G minor, op.9 (1940) [18:44]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Fantasy Sonata (1943, orch. Graham Parlett) [13:33]
Robert Plane (clarinet)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 11 to 13 June 2019, City Halls, Glasgow

The clarinet concerto by Glasgow-born Iain Hamilton is one of the finest examples of its genre. It was composed during the winter of 1949-50 and was one of three works in which Hamilton explored and developed the potentialities of the instrument. The other two were the Three Nocturnes for clarinet and piano, op.6 (1951) and the Clarinet Quintet no.1, op.2 (1949).

The aim of the present concerto was to create a perfect balance between the ‘virtuosity and expressive power’ of the instrument. After a ‘misterioso’ opening, the clarinet begins to explore a jaunty little motif which comes to dominate much of this movement. This ‘moderato’ appears to be episodic, with its deployment of themes, cadenzas and climaxes. The gentler melody echoes Walton, especially, his violin and viola concertos. Jazzy elements creep in here too.

The slow movement, hardly surprisingly, is the heart of this concerto. Here, Hamilton has explored the instrument’s lyrical quality. Despite it being signed ‘adagio sereno’ there are moments of intensity here, including an ‘anguished’ climax for full orchestra. Overall, the mood is ‘troubled serenity.’

The finale reveals that even in 1949 the old classical forms were not dead. Hamilton has provided a good ‘rondo’ with the opening ‘lugubrious, dance theme to the fore. There are expressive moments here too as well as agitated cadenza-like material. Here and there hints of Gershwin are heard. 
Surely it is time for one of the big record labels to begin (and complete) a cycle of Iain Hamilton’s four Symphonies and other major orchestral works.

I guess that Richard Walthew (1872-1951) is not a well-remembered composer these days - the Arkiv catalogues cites only four CDs featuring his work - so a few words of introduction may be of interest. London-born, he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and latterly at the Royal College of Music with Hubert Parry. Much of his subsequent career was spent in academia and later as the conductor of the South Place Orchestra in Finsbury. He was particularly prolific in writing for chamber ensembles with examples in virtually every instrumental combination. His orchestral works include a piano concerto, incidental music for Aladdin, Table Music and a Suite for string orchestra. There were also two operettas, apparently in the G&S mould. He died in East Preston, Sussex on 14 November 1951. It is hard to make a stylistic judgement with so few recordings, but based on what I have heard, Thomas Dunhill’s remark that Walthew’s music is ‘refined, lyrical and unostentatious’ is not wide of the mark.

The liner notes explain that the Clarinet Concerto was composed in 1902 but was left un-orchestrated, an ‘oversight’ recently resolved by Alfie Pugh. It is largely conventional in its three-movement form. Much has been made of the concerto’s Germanic antecedents, with an important technical influence from the German clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. Overall, this is a lovely work which is in a trajectory from Weber, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Elgar. It is a ‘classic Edwardian’ piece that is none the worse for being so. Do not expect heaven storming music here. This is no commentary on the life and times of the composer; it is quite simply a ‘walk in the park’. This delightful work is chockfull of melodies, idiomatic clarinet playing and is ‘sensitively and stylishly orchestrated’. It is one of my discoveries of the year.

The year 1940 was a busy one for Ruth Gipps; her catalogue cites several works written that year. She also became engaged to Robert Baker, a fellow student and clarinettist and began studies with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music.

It is easy to insist that Gipps’s Clarinet Concerto has been ‘overinfluenced’ by her teacher, but that is a little unfair. It is certainly ‘pastoral’ with little to disturb the progress of the music, and it is hard to imagine that the Blitz was in full flow at the time.  There are echoes of Finzi’s idyllic mood in many bars of this piece. The first movement echoes her teacher RVW, complete with ‘walking bass’ and warm-hearted themes and counter melodies.  Certain magical touches include the duet between clarinet and oboe in the slow movement. Here, it is no surprise that Gipps’s instrument was the oboe.  The final movement may have been inspired by the ‘supplementary classes’ in folk dancing that Gipps took at the RCM. This ‘vivace’ is a delightful ‘jig’ that brings her charming concerto to a happy end.

I first heard John Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata (1943) on an old Revolution Record (RCF.009) of English Clarinet Sonatas which also included works by Arnold Bax, Charles Villiers Stanford and Eric Hughes. I fell under its spell immediately. This was a ‘late’ work for Ireland, despite him living for another 19 years and many critics regard it as his chamber music masterpiece. It would appear to have been composed between June and December 1943 and was dedicated to the great clarinettist Frederick Thurston.  The Fantasy Sonata premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 29 January 1944, with the dedicatee and the pianist Kendall Taylor.

There is no doubt that this is a virtuosic piece which is demanding for the soloist (and the pianist in its original incarnation). I guess that the music is a true Fantasy in nature, changing its mood at every turn. That said, Ireland has invested considerable emotion here; it is not just a pastoral musing, although this element is clearly present here.

This new arrangement for clarinet and orchestra by Graham Parlett is masterly. The subtle interweaving of the soloist and accompaniment is retained, but it allows the listener who knows the chamber version to see the Fantasy in a new light. Hopefully someone who discovers this version will be tempted to explore the original.

The liner notes are extensive and give a good understanding of the four concerted works on this disc. The context of each pieces is explained along with excellent descriptive notes about the music’s progress. The CD is given a personal introduction by Robert Plane. The usual biographical details of the soloist, orchestra and conductor are included. The rear cover has photographs of all the composer. 

It is not necessary to insist that all four concertos are given superb performances. Robert Plane, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins are manifestly committed to this repertoire. The sound quality could not be bettered.

All four works are premiere performances (but see details of Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata above). It is to be hoped that concert promoters will hear this CD and think about programming some of these pieces in the future. Meanwhile, enthusiasts of British music have an amazing opportunity to enjoy.

John France

Previous Review: Jonathan Woolf

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