British Clarinet Concertos Volume 2: CD
I’ve read a couple of reviews of this disc that start with remarks along the lines of ‘who knew there were enough British clarinet concertos to fill one volume, let alone two?’ Well, readers of Clarinet & Saxophone, of course we knew, and it’s great to see Chandos and Michael Collins throwing their weight behind this highly worthwhile recording series.
Let’s get the niggles out of the way first. While I’m delighted that Finzi is so popular nowadays, I wonder why the clarinet-and-strings version of Five Bagatelles had to be included here. It’s not a concerto and takes up space that could have been given to any number of other works – just look at Thea King’s catalogue with Hyperion for a long list of British clarinet concertos that deserve to be revisited. And Britten’s Movements for a Clarinet Concerto too… I must say that I’m not quite convinced by this work, whose inclusion gives the impression that compiling a disc of British clarinet music inevitably means reaching for arrangements.
Orchestrated and assembled by the composer Colin Matthews, Movements for a Clarinet Concerto begins with a first movement comprising polished-up
sketches for a concerto commissioned by Benny Goodman but never finished. There is some spiky and interesting music here, suggesting the world of Bartók’s Contrasts and also the fugue from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The second and third movements are arrangements of other non-clarinet music by Britten, and here the music arguably gets weaker, especially in the slightly forced introduction of themes from the first movement into the last. But Movements for a Clarinet Concerto is still a diverting work, performed with great élan by Collins.
Next it’s the Finzi Bagatelles, and we are still waiting for a ‘real’ clarinet concerto. But at least we are being treated to some beautiful playing while we wait. Collins excels here, especially in the ‘Carol’, where Lawrence Ashmore’s arrangement reduces the strings to solo players, creating a sublimely intimate atmosphere. Next is Concerto No 1 by Arnold Cooke, a composer known to clarinettists through his relatively popular Sonata and a number of other chamber works. This concerto will be new to many, however – it has been recorded once before (by Thea King, of course) but has never really made inroads into the concert hall. Perhaps its epic duration (nearly 30 minutes) puts people off, but on the basis of this recording I would strongly suggest that clarinettists have another look at it.
It is said about Cooke that he was an English Hindemith, and you can certainly hear the influence of this composer (who was also his teacher), but there is also something particular to Cooke here: an urgent, uncompromising, insistent sensibility which is at the same time lyrical. Cooke has found a compelling advocate for his musical ideas in Collins, who gives the concerto a thrillingly energetic performance.
Equally exciting is the disc’s final work: William Mathias’s Clarinet Concerto. This is a bold work deserving of serious attention from clarinettists and concert programmers. Scored for strings and a battery of pitched and unpitched percussion, the music is unsettling throughout – whether travelling through a landscape akin to Stravinskian jazz or lamenting with quiet lyricism in a style not obviously comparable to other composers. Collins is right inside the music, delivering a performance of complete accomplishment and integrity.
All this adds up to an absolute ‘must listen’ of a disc, despite only half the works being concertos in the proper sense. Collins is on superb form and also multitasks as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who provide excellent support. Dash out and buy it now.