Both a passion project and a cutting-edge release, this record is the culmination of painstaking research on the part of the clarinet soloist, Robert Plane, who wrote about the process of unearthing and recording these lost British works for clarinet and orchestra in Clarinet & Saxophone earlier this year (spring 2020).
Leading British clarinettists of the first half of the 20th century did a great deal to promote the clarinet as a serious solo instrument, and many composers responded by writing vivid and ambitious works for it. But as the musical establishment turned away from the urbane, pastoral English tradition in the latter half of the century and towards the avant-garde, many of these works fell from favour and into obscurity. Happily, Plane and others are now putting this right.
All three concertos featured here are in the standard three-movement format (fast-slow-fast). Iain Hamilton’s Clarinet Concerto is first.
This forthright work sets a dramatic tone, and Plane’s hearty, generous sound and fluid technique are more than a match for the serious demands of the music.
The slow movement is serene and heart-rending, while the outer movements are turbulent and challenging.
Richard Henry Walthew’s Concerto, newly orchestrated here, is much frothier, with a nod to English light music but also a throughline to Crusell and other 19th-century clarinet composers with its bubbling arpeggio figures and runs.
Plane gives a suitably sparkling performance.
Ruth Gipps’ Concerto is next. Its subtle textures repay repeated listening, and its tonal landscape is harmonically wide-ranging and satisfying. It is finely orchestrated, and the melancholy but virtuosic solo cadenza in the first movement is a gift to performer and listener alike.
This is a respectful and finessed performance of a fascinating work.
The record closes with John Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata in a successful new arrangement for clarinet and strings by Graham Parlett. Listeners may know this grand single-movement work in its original version for clarinet and piano, and anyone who has attempted the soft, high opening will be envious of the bed of strings supporting Plane here, instead of the usual non-sustaining piano chords. This piece is a good inclusion – as clarinettists we sometimes forget that even our better known solo works are relatively unfamiliar to non-clarinettists and often deserve wider exposure.
Congratulations to Robert Plane and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on this beautifully conceived, performed and recorded project.
I look forward to future endeavours in a similar vein.