Thursday 22 April 2021

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wishart from Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Palmer;

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos: Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wishart; Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Palmer; SIGNUM

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos
: Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wishart; Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Palmer; SIGNUM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 April 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Four forgotten British clarinet concertos from the 1930s and 1940s in performances which make you wonder how come these works managed to fall through the cracks

This disc from clarinettist Peter Cigleris with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Ben Palmer on the Cala Signum label is titled Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by Dolmetsch, Maconchy, Spain-Dunk, Wishart and consists of four mid-20th century British clarinet concertos. The four composers, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Elizabeth Maconchy, Susan Spain-Dunk and Peter Wishart are not all well-known and none of the concertos seem to be, they have fallen through the cracks. In fact, of the four, three are world premiere recordings as only Elizabeth Maconchy's Concertino for Clarinet and Strings has been recorded before.

In the booklet notes, Peter Cigleris explains that back in 2014 he was looking for the manuscript of Charles Villiers Stanford's Clarinet Concerto in the Royal Academy of Music and he happened to come across the previously unknown clarinet concerto by Ebenezer Prout. This Cigleris off looking out what other British works have been neglected, and he found a surprising amount with a significant number of women composers in the mid-century period. The four works on the disc are the ones which stood out for Cigleris.

Susan Spain-Dunk
Susan Spain-Dunk
The first work, chronolgically is Susan Spain-Dunk's Cantilena (Poem) for clarinet and orchestra which was premiered in 1930. The first performance was a private one, with just clarinet and piano, in a programme which also included Imogen Holst's Phantasy Quartet. Spain-Dunk studied at the Royal Academy of Music and most of her output seems to date from the 1920 and 1930s, and though there are works from the 1950s her output very much seems to tail off. 

Whilst the official history of 20th century British music, particularly in the first half of the century, places great emphasis on Stanford, Parry and their pupils at the Royal College of Music, the mix of composers was somewhat more complex as Cigleris explains in his booklet note, "The Second World War had a significant impact on compositional styles in Great Britain. Pre 1939/40 the two predominant styles within British music were those of Post- Romanticism and Nationalism: It can be argued that the post-romantics came from the Royal Academy of Music, led by the ‘Wagnerian’ Fredrick Corder, while the Nationalists came out of the Royal College of Music under the influence of Parry and Stanford. Post 1945, with the influence of the BBC, Modernism became the dominant style". That said, it is striking quite how varied Stanford's pupils were! Whilst Spain-Dunk would belong to the 'Post-Romantics' from the Royal Academy of Music, alongside Granville Bantock and Arnold Bax.

Spain-Dunk's Poem is a single movement work lasting around 10 minutes, using a modified sonata form. From its very opening, Spain-Dunk's piece is extremely redolent of the time and place of its composition and, allowing for a difference in personal voice, you can draw a line from Stanford's Clarinet Concerto (1904) to that of Gerald Finzi in 1949, and Spain-Dunk would comfortably fit there, perhaps slightly to one side leaning more towards Delius. For all the formal structures of the piece, she writes with a rhapsodic sensibility which is appealing.

Rudolph Dolmetsch by Elliott & Fry, bromide print NPG x89047 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Rudolph Dolmetsch by Elliott & Fry,
bromide print NPG x89047
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Chronologically, then comes Rudolph Dolmetsch's Concerto for Clarinet, Harp and Orchestra which was premiered in 1939. Rudolph Dolmetsch was the eldest son of instrument maker and Early Music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch and as such Rudolph got drafted in the family period-instrument ensemble playing harpsichord, and going on to establish himself as a fine harpsichord player. By the 1930s he was moving away from the family ensemble and studied with Constant Lambert at the Royal College of Music. His concerto is dedicated to his wife Millicent, and was possibly intended for the orchestra which he had founded after leaving the RCM. But in 1939, he signed up and was killed in 1942 when the ship he was serving on was torpedoed.

The concerto is for the rather unusual combination of clarinet, harp (here Deian Rowlands) and chamber orchestra. It is in three movements, Allegro moderato, Larghetto Ostinata and Scioltamante but he treats his soloists very much as a concertante group in a concerto grosso, with a central duo cadenza in each of the two outer movements. There is an engaging neo-classical quality to the work, (perhaps unsurprising given his family pedigree) with a lovely combination of melodic felicity and lively structural detail. It is a substantial work with a first movement lasting ten minutes, which gives Dolmetsch space for substantial orchestral contributions (perhaps best seen as ritornelli in the concerto grosso sense) and a lot of the time the soloists engage in dialogue with the orchestra so there are plenty of passages where it is just harp and clarinet, thus giving us some engaging shifts in texture. And Dolmetsch is striking in the slow movement again for his handling of his forces. With the finale we get hints of other English composers and feel his lineage to the RCM line of composers.

Elizabeth Maconchy
Elizabeth Maconchy
Elizabeth Maconchy also studied at the Royal College of Music, with RVW. She wrote the Concertino for Clarinet and String Orchestra in 1945 for the great clarinettist Frederick Thurston who gave a few performances of the work in the 1940s (including on the BBC Third Programme) but then it languished until the clarinettist Thea King recorded it with the English Chamber Orchestra. (King had studied with Thurston and the two married in 1953). Thurston had played the Stanford concerto under the composer's direction in the 1920s and was intimately involved in the creation of the Finzi's concerto.

Maconchy's work is in three movements, Allegro, Lento, Allegro but comes over rather as a single multi-section work. There is a very definite sense of a personal voice here, and presaging of British modernism. The terrific first movement, full of striking polyphonic textures an interesting combination of seriousness of purpose and lively detail, is followed by a darkly intense slow movement. The finale again combines vivacity with darkness and intensity.

The most recent work on the disc is Peter Wishart's Serenata Concertante for Clarinet and small orchestra which was written in 1947. Wishart studied at Birmingham University and then became a private pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and he would go on to combine composing with a distinguished academic career. The origins of the Serenata Concertante are unknown. It dates from just after Wishart finished his studies in Paris and is dedicated to Anthony Lewis who was on the staff of the BBC and from 1946 had control of broadcast music, but from 1947 he was also on the staff of Birmingham University. The manuscript re-surfaced in the papers of the late Don Roberts, who was librettist to Wishart's operas, but no parts or copy of the score were found so it is presumed that the work's premiere was the performance at the ICA ClarinetFest, Oostende, Belgium in 2018.

Peter Wishart
Peter Wishart

The work is in six movements, Prelude, March, Choral, Waltz, Habanera and Finale, and combines a feeling of British music in the 1940s and 1950s with some spicier elements.  The Prelude is strikingly rhapsodic, but with a sense of the more popular which pops up in the other movements too so that the March is wonderfully perky, and the Waltz is characterfully off-kilter, whilst in between we have an intense Choral with very English roots. Then, just to keep us guessing, comes a Habanera, with a lively finale to close. Listening to the work I can't help thinking of the way William Walton could put on different personae and popular idioms in his music yet still remain the same.

At the time when these works were written in the 1930s and 1940s, their differences would have seemed more significant than their similarities but from a distance we can appreciate how all four composers, despite coming from three different generations (1880, 1906/7, 1921) all partake of that particular soundworld which is mid-century British music, a soundworld which would be rather swept away by modernism in the 1950s and 1960s.

This is a wonderfully engaging disc, persuasively performed by Cigleris, BBC NOW and Palmer and there seems to be real affection for the music in these performances. This is not one of those rediscovery discs which are important for the catalogue but which fail as an engaging listen. Here we have four striking and confident works, in terrific performances and Cigleris has assembled what proves to be a satisfying overall recital.

You wonder why these works fell out of currency and can only admire Peter Cigleris for his pertinacity and perspicacity in bringing the works to the fore, and it also makes you wonder what else it out there! 

Susan Spain-Dunk (1880-1962) - Cantilena (Poem) for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 51
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) - Concertino for Clarinet and String Orchestra
Rudolph Dolmetsch (1906-1942) - Concerto for Clarinet, Harp and Orchestra
Peter Wishart (1921-1984) - Serenata Concertante for Clarinet and Small Orchestra
Peter Cigleris (clarinet)
Deian Rowlands (harp)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ben Palmer (conductor)
Recorded in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 28 - 30 November 2019

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