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For Clarinet and Strings
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Clarinet Quintet (1951 rev 1953) [15:35]
Nicola LeFANU (b.1947)
Songs without Words (2005) [11:03]
Howard SKEMPTON (b.1947)
Lullaby (1983) [3:47]
Gemini Dances (1994) [9:34]
Tony COE (b.1943)
Dream Odyssey [5:26]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale (1941) [13:13]
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965)
Fire in Song (2020) [13:48]
Gemini (Ian Mitchell, director)
rec. September 1995, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London and All Saints’ Church, Richmond (Skempton Gemini Dances, Clarke, Scott), London and October 2020
MÉTIER MSV28608 [72:24]

Two years after winning the 1993 Prudential Awards for the Arts, Gemini recorded three of the works here, those by Rebecca Clarke, Cyril Scott and Howard Skempton’s Gemini, and for various reasons they remained on the shelf. Only recently has the ensemble tackled the remainder of the programme, which is why a good quarter of a century separates the two recording ventures.

But what an attractive programme it is, stuffed, too, with world premiere recordings. The first of them is Scott’s Clarinet Quintet written in 1951 and revised in 1953. There seems to be uncertainty but it appears to have been inspired by the playing of Gervase de Peyer but he and the Melos Ensemble certainly gave the first performance of the original version in 1951. It’s been very largely overlooked, though there was one broadcast in 1982 by Thea King, which makes this premiere recording, probably the first actual performance since King’s, that much more valuable. Even in 1951 Scott hearkened back to the Cobbett Prize injunction of single-movement rhapsody, here both fulsomely delivered and creatively manoeuvred by Ian Mitchell, Gemini’s director, who proves a mellifluous and agile agent for Scott’s lyricism. The string quartet is cushioned, indeed inflated, by the church acoustic. There’s a beautiful Tranquillo section, some refined ecclesiastical-sounding paragraphs and plenty of cantabile before the jubilant close. I suppose late-ish Scott is unfashionable to all except the British Music crew, but there’s no reason to pass by this quarter-hour, wholly delightful work.

Scott’s near-contemporary Rebecca Clarke is represented by her Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, written for clarinet and viola in America in 1941. Her brother was a good amateur clarinetist and she herself, of course, was a very fine violist and these roles are taken here by Mitchell and Yuko Inoue. This is a most attractively balanced and paced recording. They both get the deft folkloric drift and project it with just the right weight of significance. I also like the decision-making in the only movement which seems to cause problems, the Pastorale finale. Some zip through it, as do Julian Farrell and Michael Ponder on Dutton, whilst others give it space and time (Robert Plane and Philip Dukes on Naxos). Mitchell and Inoue strike an almost perfect balance between these two relative extremes.

Nicola LeFanu’s Song without Words dates from 2005 and is cast for clarinet and string trio, though the first of the four sections is actually for solo clarinet. There are moments of agitation, replete with angular rhythmic patterns, in the second piece whilst the third, quite jolly, functions as an approval of Catalan independence (it’s called Catalunya!) and the last, and much the longest, is very slow except for a more urgent B section and exudes a feeling of numbed calm as it memorializes those then dying in the Middle East. Tony Coe is best-known as a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, awarded the Jazzpar Prize in 1995, the first non-American to have received it. He has worked with everyone from Lyttelton to Konitz and I heard him in concerts a number of times and have never been able to get out of my mind his brilliant playing in two of Stan Tracey’s pieces, Genesis and The Crompton Suite. He has written film music and was well placed to write Dream Odyssey, a brief, six-minute narrative for clarinet and string quartet where mystery, eerie tremolandi and filmic unease are joined by radiant harmonies, and a decided flap of the avian wings. A lovely, lively wholly unpretentious piece of writing.

Howard Skempton’s Lullaby for clarinet and cello, has Bachian elements and compact lyricism. Gemini Dances – of which this is the first recording of the complete work – is written for an instrumental group comprising flute, clarinet, spoons/snare drum, piano, violin and cello. This is earthy, communicative music with drones and folkloric flair aplenty, a fife and drum March, and a rather Balkan-like passage (or is that my imagination?). There’s an intriguing passage for piano over a drum tattoo. Brilliantly played, this is a treat.

The most recent piece is Australian-born now British-resident Sadie Harrison’s Fire in Song (2020). This concerns an Aboriginal creation story and the music was written during the viciously destructive bush fires of 2019-20. It’s in seven compact sections and written for clarinet, viola, clapsticks and speakers. Sonorities are full of interest, the music framed by two laments, the first terse, the last more urgent, in between which there are movements such as Quail and the Burning Twig and Honey Bees and the Tall Grass. One of the movements sounds oddly Copland-like and the spoken narrative panel adds another frame of reference to this diverting music.

There is a full booklet with colour photographic reproductions. These various clarinet-led works prove both novel and enriching.

Jonathan Woolf



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