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Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Dedication: The Clarinet Chamber Music of Ruth Gipps
Rhapsody in E flat Op.23 (1942) [11:08]
The Kelpie of Corrievreckan (1939) [4:04]
Quintet for oboe, clarinet and string trio Op.16 (1941) [26:32]
Prelude for bass clarinet Op.51 (1958) [6:30]
Sonata for clarinet and piano Op.45 (1955) [19:17]
Peter Cigleris (clarinet)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
Tippett Quartet
rec. 1-2 November 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

This wonderful release celebrates the centenary of the birth of the English composer Ruth Gipps. It brings five premiere recordings of chamber music written for her husband clarinettist Robert Baker. Most of them were broadcast on Radio 3 in March 2021 when Gipps was “Composer of the Week”. See Pamela Blevins’s essay for the composer’s interesting biography.

I listened to the pieces in chronological order. I am indebted to the liner notes for information and ideas about this repertoire. The Kelpie of Corrievreckan for piano and clarinet was composed in 1939, when Gipps was still at the Royal College of Music. She had just started to “court” Robert Baker who was a clarinet student with Frederick Thurston. This miniature tone poem is based on a text by the Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist, novelist and songwriter, Charles Mackay (1814-1889), from his 1851 collection Legends of the Isles and Other Poems. The long and short of the tale is about a Kelpie, or water-horse, who falls in love with Jessie at a country fair. She reciprocates, elopes with the Kelpie but discovers that mortals and water horses are incompatible. She cannot breathe under sea, and a local fisherman finds her dead. Corrievreckan (or Corryvreckan) is a notorious whirlpool between the Scottish isles of Jura and Scarba. The piece, while brief, follows the story in some detail but it can be listened to as an absolute work, with the turmoil of the sea as its overriding emotion. It would serve as a splendid encore at any clarinet and piano recital.

The Quintet for oboe, clarinet, and string trio Op.16 was composed in 1941, as the completion exercise for Gipps’s Durham University Bachelor of Music Degree. I accept the proposal in the liner notes that it could be cited as an “instrumentally pared-down chamber symphony”. Ruth Gipps was an oboist, and her fiancÚ a clarinettist. This relationship is mirrored in an imaginative “intertwining” of the woodwind instruments.

The Quintet is conceived in four movements; the opening Allegro is the longest by far. There is some sadness in the slow Adagio, which is quite beautiful. The energetic scherzo is a touch “countrified”, whilst the finale is a laid-back Allegro moderato. The overall effect could be described as “Uneasy Pastoral”. The use of the oboe lends the score a bucolic atmosphere from time to time, yet there are deeper moments. On the other hand, there is no trauma: nothing to suggest that the Second World War was into its third year. I listened to this Quintet twice. It is the kind of composition I always enjoy hearing: idyllic, yes, but not oblivious to more profound emotions. Gipps pushes the boundaries of the pastoral genre but certainly never produces “cow and gate” music.

The following year, Robert Baker, now Gipps’s husband, was called up for military service. The lovely Rhapsody in E flat for clarinet and string quartet Op.23 (1942) surely reflects this separation. Still, this is no tragic work though often introspective. It too evokes the muse of English Pastoralism, especially apparent in the opening section. The liner notes explain that the Rhapsody is not a set of variations on a theme, but an opportunity for the ensemble to present “a series of continuous contemplations on the opening material”. It succeeds extraordinarily well.

The superb Clarinet Sonata (1955) is written in four movements. The powerful opening Maestoso: Allegro ma non troppo is compelling in its forward impetus. There is more of a neo-classical feel here. The slow movement, an Andante con moto, is beguiling. The clarinettist is wrapped up in a bewitching piano part. This is followed by a sprightly Scherzando that moves along at breakneck speed. Only the subtler trio section ends the momentum and allows the soloist to gain breath. The finale opens with another strong Maestoso section before developing into a lively Allegro molto dance, which seems to parody the rustic mood of music from an earlier generation. The Sonata ends reflectively, before a final, boisterous coda. It is hard to imagine why this work is not in the repertoire along with the clarinet sonatas by Bax, Bliss, Howells, Ireland and Stanford.

The Prelude for bass clarinet Op.51 was completed in 1958. It is surely one of precious few solo works for this instrument, and it a little masterpiece. The booklet correctly places it on the same level as Debussy’s Syrinx for flute, Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe, and Berio’s Sequenza XII for bassoon. Gipps’s soliloquy allows composer and performer to explore a wide range of emotions, technical challenge and instrumental colour. There is little here of Gipps’s earlier tranquil musing, but something that is timeless and beholden to no “school”. And I for one had no idea how stunning and downright interesting a solo bass clarinet can sound.

Robert Matthew-Walker’s liner notes give good contextual information about, and a succinct analysis of, each work. It would have been helpful to have included the dates of each piece in the track listing: they are not always given in the notes. The Sonata for clarinet and piano does not have the opus number indicated in the track listing: it is Op.45. There are the usual bios of the artists. On the cover there is a photo of Ruth Gipps and Robert Baker.

All the performances are ideal. Clearly, the artists have a strong sympathy for Gipps’s musical aesthetic. I can find no fault in the quality of the recording.

This is a fascinating conspectus of Ruth Gipps’s chamber music for clarinet. It has introduced me to five remarkable works, each with interest, imagination and technical integrity. Sadly, her achievement has been ignored by record companies and concert promoters in recent years. Only around half a dozen discs are devoted to her catalogue. Let us hope that, as we pass her centenary, other artists will turn their skills to her opus. There is still plenty to interest the listener and performer in virtually every genre, but especially in chamber music.

John France

Tippett Quartet: John Mills (violin), Jeremy Isaac (violin), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)

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