Wednesday 22 February 2017

English Fantasy: Emma Johnson in concertos by John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes and Will Todd

English Fantasy - John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes, Paul Reade, Will Todd
English Fantasy: Will Todd, Paul Reade, John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes; Emma Johnson, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Philip Ellis; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Four contrasting modern, lyrically melodic concertante works, from British composers

Clarinettist Emma Johnson's disc English Fantasy on Nimbus Alliance features four concertante works written for her between 1991 and 2015. The composers are all linked by writing melodically in what might be called an approachable style. Yet the resulting works are surprisingly diverse with a remarkable range. Emma Johnson and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Philip Ellis, perform Will Todd's Concerto for Emma, Paul Reade's Suite from The Victorian Kitchen Garden, John Dankworth's Clarinet Concerto - The Woolwich, and Patrick Hawes Clarinet Concerto.

Will Todd's concerto was commissioned for Emma and she premiered it with the Brighton Philharmonic, conductor Barry Wordsworth, in 2009, though Todd has re-written the work subsequently. The opening Blues and Dance has the clarinet emerging gradually out of orchestral mists. As the music become more rhapsodic there are jazz hints which crystallise in the faster section with its jazzy rhythms making something both intriguing and toe-tapping. Ballad starts with a slow jazz muted trumpet, and the moody bluesy clarinet solo does not preclude an element of English rhapsody too. The finale, Funky Tunes, has a perky snap to the rhythm, though there are some down and dirty moments too.

Paul Reade wrote the music for the TV series The Victorian Kitchen Garden for clarinet and small ensemble, but in 1991 Reade made a concert suite for Emma Johnson for clarinet, harp and strings. Prelude is lyrically evocative, though more complex than simple pastiche, and throughout the work we can admire Reade's melodic felicity. The lively and charming Spring has elements of birdsong in the solo clarinet, whilst Mists is quietly evocative and melancholic. Exotica is perky and rather Grainger-esque, but the finale is a lyrical English Summer.

John Dankworth's concerto was commissioned by Emma Johnson in the 1990s (the name comes from the fact that Johnson lived in the area and the commission was supported by her local Woolwich Building Society). She premiered the work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.

From the opening moments of the concerto it is clear from Dankworth's writing that he has a very particular voice. The music is edgier and spikier than the first two works on the disc, and the writing for clarinet reminds us that Dankworth was a fine clarinet player himself. There is still a jazz undertow to the piece, yet with virtuoso bits including a cadenza which leads into the second movement. This has the rhapsodic clarinet weaving in and out of the orchestral instruments, before settling into something attractively lyrical and rhythmic. The second movement's marking Cantable - Reggae gives a clear idea of the inspiration behind it, whilst the third, Slowy, Nostagically is lyrical and bluesy, with a wonderful rich wash of orchestral colour. The final Boogie Woogie is suddenly upbeat, and at first something of a perky march (shades of Malcolm Arnold's Beckus the Dandipratt), but dramatic climaxes and thoughtful moments lead to a big romantic finish. Though divided into four movements, they flow into each other with the opening theme going through myriad transformations. The work is written for a large orchestra, and in live performance the soloist is miked.

Patrick Hawes concerto was written for Emma Johnson in 2015 and takes as some of its inspiration the Arthurian legends. The opening Allegretto has an elegance to it, with something of the English pastoral about the music, yet with complex undertones and a sense of dramatic narrative to the music. The central Sarabande is simply lovely, English with rhapsodic moments very much in the tradition of the Finzi concerto. The Allegro marziale is lyrical yet perky too, getting more intense and complex, with a clarinet part notable for its range and virtuosity.

This disc provides a remarkable tribute to alternative strands of contemporary music. As Emma Johnson writes in her Cd booklet note, 'Does it take courage to write melodically? Well, yes, when you live in an age where art has to be forever stretching boundaries to be taken seriously'. The music on this disc is all rooted in the past (or various pasts) yet does not take its audience for granted and provides an intelligent modern slant on tradition. Part of the fascination of the disc is that Emma Johnson has inspired four so very different concertante works, and the performances from Johnson, the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Philip Ellis are admirable.

Will Todd (born 1970) - Concerto for Emma (2009/15)
Paul Reade (1943-1997) - Suite from The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1991)
John Dankworth (1927-2010) - Clarinet Concerto: The Woolwich (1995_
Patrick Hawes (born 1958) - Clarinet Concerto (2015)
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Philip Ellis (conductor)
Recorded at Watford Colosseum, 21-23 October 2015
Available from Amazon.

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