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John HAWKINS (b. 1949)
Simplicius - Music for Clarinet Volume 1
Simplicius Simplicissimus for B flat clarinet and string orchestra (2018) [6:33]
The Dong with a Luminous Nose for clarinet and baritone (1976) [14:18]
In Touch – Trio for clarinet in A, cello and piano (2016) [9:57]
Clarinet Sonata for B flat clarinet and piano (1969-72) [10:45]
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (1972) [16:54]
Steve Dummer (clarinets)
Yoko Ono (piano)
Ivana Peranic (cello)
Aidan Smith (bass-baritone)
Stane Street Sinfonietta/Holly Mathieson
rec. 2019, St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, UK. Stereo
CLAUDIO BD-A CC6045-6 [58:27]

John Hawkins is not a name that comes up very often in the recorded catalogue. I remember the first broadcast performance of his Sea Symphony from Portsmouth Guildhall in December 1982. It was a major commission and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra included it in a sea-themed concert for the occasion. As luck would have it, I left a tape recorder running at home whilst attending the concert so I can, and have, revisited the music. The intervening decades of listening have not featured him until this enjoyable Blu-ray Audio disc arrived. Details of Hawkins life in publishing as well as composing are to be found on his interesting website. In common, one suspects, with many present-day composers, Hawkins does not attempt to live by music alone, but that is not to suggest he is less than a very professional composer. His composition teachers included Elisabeth Lutyens and Malcolm Williamson and he attracted support from Charles Mackerras.

It is good to be able to report that all these compositions, from the early to the most recent works prove to be well worth listening to and show a growing confidence over the years. First, hats off to the clarinettist Steve Dummer who is essentially the star performer of this show. A pupil of the great Jack Brymer, he is given a chance to shine in all these pieces and rises splendidly to the occasion. Nothing seems to be beyond his skills and one wonders what he would do with something really meaty like the Nielsen Concerto or the Brahms Quintet.

Focussing again on John Hawkins: the eponymous piece for clarinet and strings Simplicius Simplicissimus coincided during this lockdown with me listening to the Hartmann opera of the same name and the eight symphonies he wrote. Several were triggered by the same strange tale of the Thirty Years War by 17th century writer Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. If that sounds extremely unlikely, so be it, but it is true. A fellow reviewer and I have, in the sad absence of live concerts to attend, been sharing daily remote listening to, and discussion of a lot of music for several months now. Before I picked up this disc from my small overlooked review pile we had spent a week on Hartmann: serendipitous or what! The pattern of Hawkins’ piece reflects first the comparative pastoral peace of Simplicius’ life, then the growing conflicts in which he was involved and finally an exhausted sort of calm. It works well and like all the pieces makes a valuable addition to the available music for clarinet. This and the Hartmann caused me to purchase the Penguin Classics translation of Simplicius which is now on the lockdown reading list.

Hawkins’ setting of Lear’s poem The Dong with the Luminous Nose was not an appealing thought, but as I listened I realised for the first time that Lear’s words are far from nonsensical if treated as a serious tale of loneliness and loss. The baritone has a small drama to perform, passionately sung here by Aidan Smith, and it fully justifies its status as the second longest work on the recording. Following this is a Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. Even the famously productive Bohuslav Martinů, who seems to have used every possible grouping, did not write for this combination, and I wondered how it would sound. As it turns out this is perhaps the most enjoyable work of all. Cello and clarinet work together really well and Hawkins gives us some lovely as well as stimulating sounds. This is a little wonder of a piece. The Clarinet Sonata is workmanlike but doesn’t quite match up. The early Clarinet Concerto is excellent with a lively jazz influenced finale rounding off a most worthwhile disc.

This sort of issue makes one wonder who else is out there beavering away and producing skilled and imaginative pieces which are heard by very few listeners. Several CDs exist containing one or two of Hawkins’ works but this appears to be only the second to fly the flag for him alone. The other is Meridian CDE84496 Voices from the Sea reviewed on MWI in 2003 by Rob Barnett and also by Herbert Culot. Claudio’s usual top class stereo recording, clean, clear, beautifully balanced and in the spacious acoustic of St Bartholomew’s, Brighton, makes a good case for saying more Hawkins please. Encouragingly this one is labelled “Vol.1”. For those unable to play a Blu-ray Audio disc with its 24bit/192 kHz sound, there is a regular CD stereo version noted above which, I am sure, will sound almost as good.

Claudio Records has come up with a winner here. The music is involving and interesting, the performances very good and the recording outstanding.

Dave Billinge

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