Scintillating Celebration of Contemporary Clarinet Music from James Noble and Simon Callaghan

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Roxburgh, Ireland, Anderson, Finzi, Gregson, Poulenc: James Noble (clarinet), Simon Callaghan (piano), Cheltenham Contemporary Concerts, Prince Michael Hall, Cheltenham, 16.2.2016. (RJ)

Edwin Roxburgh (b 1937): Wordsworth Minatures

John Ireland (1879-1962): Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

Julian Anderson (b 1967): The Bearded Lady

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano, Op 23

Edward Gregson (b 1945): Tributes

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B flat

Too often clarinet recitals concentrate on classics from the 18th and 19th centuries and ignore more recent developments. However, this event was refreshingly different featuring as it did a remarkably diverse range of works written over the past century – five of them by British composers.

Rising star James Noble began the evening with a solo work by one of three living composers, Edwin Roxburgh, whose Wordsworth Miniatures were inspired by the poetry of the Lakeland poet. The opening miniature Calm is the Fragrant Air was given a beautifully controlled performance and proved immensely moving. In  Waters on a Starlit Night the eddying currents contrasted with the stillness of the sky above. There was a slow, calm and questioning mood in Thoughts that do often Lie too Deep for Tears, which was soon effaced by the virtuosic leaps and upbeat movement of The Cararacts Blow their Trumpets.

For the rest of recital Noble, whose slight build and unassuming nature belie the fact that he has won several awards for his playing, was joined by Simon Callaghan. This pianist is also making a mark for himself with residencies in Canada and notable collaborations in Britain, and he clearly shares his companion’s keen interest in contemporary music. One of these was Anderson’s The Bearded Lady inspired by the character of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Its turbulent beginning reflects the confrontations Tom Rakewell has with the woman he has been deceived into marrying – but Baba is ultimately a creature to be pitied so the mood eventually turns into a lament before subsiding to a subdued close.

The thrid work by a living composer was Gregson’s Tributes, each one dedicated to a particular composer whose stylistic world he tries to “invade”. He certainly captured Poulenc’s jaunty wit and elegance in the first of the five, following it with a deeply felt pastorale which was quintessentially Finzi. The haunting solo opening of the third tribute (to Stravinsky) followed by gruff chords on the piano heralding a frenzied dance offered a splendid evocation of Le Sacre du Printemps; while both instruments combined to  create the sound of an organ in a meditation by Messiaen. Abrupt dance rhythms of what was unmistakably Bartók brought this imaginatively conceived work to a rousing conclusion with virtuoso playing by both instrumentalists.

All three works stood up well in comparison with those by the more established composers from the past. Ireland is usually acclaimed for his piano compositions and in the Sonata the piano was very much the equal of the clarinet with its subtle shades of colour and bursts of energy. Yet the composer clearly understood the clarinet’s potential as well and there were plenty of ravishing rhapsodic moments for this instrument.

Finzi’s Five Bagatelles evoked the the atmosphere of the English countryside perfectly, as one would expect. A jolly Prelude was succeeded by a tranquil Romance. Carol had a folk song simplicity while the succeeding Forlane conjured up the dances of the Tudor era. The rhythmic drive of the concluding Fughetta brought us neatly back into back into the present.

Poulenc’s popular Sonata exhibited some of the composer’s wit and elegance which Gregson had captured with such assurance, yet it was also pervaded with a feeling of melancholy. There was anger and uncertainty in the first movement and a sombre aspect to the second. One wonders if he was aware that his life was ebbing away and he would not live to give the first performance of this fine work  with Benny Goodman. (Leonard Bernstein did the honours.) However, the Allegro con fuoco finale was more typical of the Poulenc we know and love, and offered an exhilarating end to this stimulating recital by two  musicians who brought enthusiasm and integrity to their performances.

Roger Jones

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