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Bass Clarinet & Friends - A Miscellany
York BOWEN (1888-1961)
Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 (bass clarinet and string quartet) (1932) [14:36]
William O. (Bill) SMITH (b.1926)
Jazz Set (two bass clarinets) (2012) [10:19]
Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b.1980)
How to Win an Election (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017) [6:31]
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965)
Owl of the Hazels (bass clarinet and piano) (2005) [7:53]
Dave SMITH (b.1959)
Aragonesca (saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello) (1987) [15:03]
Huw WATKINS (b.1976)
Double (bass clarinet, cello and piano) (2010) [5:09]
Helen ROE (b.1955)
Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017) [9:04]
John WHITE (b.1936)
Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio (1996) [9:36]
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012)
The Riot (flute, bass clarinet and piano) (1993) [10:21]
Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet)
Gemini and friends
rec. 2017/18, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London; All Saints Church, East Finchley, London.
MÉTIER MSV28579 [39:39 + 49:38]

I love York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 for bass clarinet and string quartet. When this work was composed in 1932 (at least that is what a pencil note on the score suggests) it was probably the only work to utilise this rare instrumental combination. The listener will quickly perceive that Bowen’s quintet is a genuine partnership of all five players. Ian Mitchell explains that the soloist sometimes “works as a bass to the string quartet; at other times it is given soloistic and accompanimental roles: used freely as a leading part in its upper register as well as intertwining with each individual string instrument, giving additional richness to the timbre of the quartet”. Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet was written in a single movement, dividing into four sections with varying tempos and changes of mood. It reflects the formal structure of the Phantasy Competitions introduced by Walter Willson Cobbett in 1905. This is presented in an arch form, with an intense middle-section preceded and followed by a dreamy reverie, often verging on the impressionistic.

After wallowing in the gorgeous Bowen Quintet, I turned to William O. Smith’s Jazz Set for two bass clarinets. Nominally a ‘classical’ composer, but having been ‘brought up’ on jazz, Smith has occasionally indulged in pieces that synthesise the two genres. The classical input to Jazz Set appears to be that of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Webern. It is a successful combination. The work in in four short movements: 1. Swinging, 2, Moderato, 3. Slow and finally 4. Energetic. The liner notes explain that Smith has not called for improvisation in this score, however, several passages are effectively ‘written-out improvisations.’

British composer Cheryl Frances-Head has provided a remarkably contemporary setting of some advice from the Roman statesman Quintus Tullius Cicero (102BC-43BC) on How to Win an Election. This piece for bass clarinet and mezzo soprano came about shortly after Mr Donald Trump’s assumption of office in January 2017. Allowing for the passage of years, the text is remarkably prescient for politicians down through the ages – not just for Mr Trump. The singing is an exciting tour de force of sprechstimme and an atonal sound world generated by the singer and the bass clarinet.

Another piece inspired by extra-classical material is Sadie Harrison’s Owl of the Hazels (Lazdynn Peleda) composed for bass clarinet and piano. This piece features two Lithuanian folk-songs which tell the story of a bride’s journey ‘from first love, to the walk home from church and finally a week later.’ There is also a jazz feel to parts of this work: certainly, some of these tunes seem to swing along. The second half, which clearly represents a degree of disillusion on the bride’s behalf is a morose but satisfying commentary on her thoughts.

The second CD begins with Dave Smith’s Aragonesca for saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello composed in 1987. The inspiration for this sunny, Latin work was the long-running Cuban musical groups Orquesta Aragon. This ensemble was founded in 1939 and is still going strong. Their musical ‘take’ is splendidly old-fashioned. They play ‘dance’ music which has evolved from the Cha-cha-cha to more modern fusions sounds. Smith has recreated their sound world with three dances: I. Tempo di Son; II. Tempo di Danzón–Mambo; III. Tempo di Rumba. As part of my review I listened to some music by Orquesta Aragon on YouTube: Smith has not parodied their style but has recreated it in his own image. This is a highly effective and enjoyable piece of music.

Huw Watkins’s Double for bass clarinet, cello and piano was ‘loosely suggested’ by the old French form the ‘Double’ which was a type of variation that was basically a more ornamented version of the theme. In Watkin’s work the music is beautiful and often quite moving. The melodies and harmonies have a relaxed and timeless feel to them, although as the ‘Double’ develops a little more animation is encountered.

The New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was the source of the two poems that are well-set for mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet by Helen Roe. Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water is a vivid exploration of singing in the ‘modern style’ and supported by the bass clarinet performing all kinds of technical wizardry including complex multiphonics (two or more notes played at once) and extreme registers.

The Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio by John White has the remarkable capacity of sounding like a full-blown orchestral concerto, despite the fact the ‘band’ features only one violin, one viola and a single cello. The work was composed in 1996. It has three short, but immediately approachable, movements. The first, ‘Robotic’ is exactly that: a jagged march-like music emulating some toy automaton from the 1930s. The middle movement is, again, what it says on the tin – ‘Suave, serene’. It is quite lovely. The finale is a characteristically romantic little ‘Valse’: sad rather than vivacious.

The final work on this CD is Jonathan Harvey’s The Riot for flute, bass clarinet, piano (1993). The title is based on an anagram of Het Trio, an ensemble which premiered the piece in 1994.
The liner notes suggest that the ethos of the work is “to throw around themes which retain their identity sufficiently to bounce off each other sharply, even when combined polyphonically or mixed up together in new configurations”. It is a highly charged piece of music (with one or two points where steam does run out). The harmonies and melodies are eclectic, with every so often something totally conventional breaking out, especially in the piano part. It is a ‘fab’ piece and, except for the Bowen is my favourite piece in this disc.

All the playing is of the highest standard on this 2-CD set. The recording is perfect, and the documentation is most helpful. There are concise notes about each work, all preceded by an introduction by the present soloist, bass clarinettist Ian Mitchell.

This highly-imaginative programme explores a diverse range of music: from the romantic certainties of York Bowen’s remarkable Phantasy Quintet to Jonathan Harvey’s ebullient The Riot, by way of the Latin infused sounds of Dave Smith’s Aragonesca. It is thoroughly enjoyable from the first track to the last.

John France
 




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