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Caprices and Laments
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Clarinet Concerto (1947-8) [16:24]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Clarinet Concerto (1928) [24:42]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Tuíreadh (1991, arranged 1995) [21:43]
Maximilian Martín (clarinet)
Orquesta Sinfónica Tenerife/Lucas Macías Navarro
rec 21-24 January 2020, Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín, Santa Cruz Tenerife
DELPHIAN DCD34250 [62:49]

Copland wrote his Clarinet Concerto in response to a commission from Benny Goodman, a versatile musician who enjoyed performing (and recording) Mozart and other classical composers. Two of the most outstanding works resulting from Goodman’s commissions were Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano, and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.

Apropos his concerto, Copland remarked: “I had long been an admirer of Benny Goodman, and I thought that writing a concerto with him in mind would give me a fresh point of view.” Scored for clarinet with strings, harp and piano, the concerto was completed in 1948, but Copland revised it following suggestions from Goodman himself. While the Goodman connection inevitably led to a jazz-influence in Copland’s concerto, in fact this stylistic feature was nothing new in his music. The Clarinet Concerto’s two-movement form (slow-fast) was a pattern Copland had already adopted in his Piano Concerto of 1926, though the two movements of the new concerto are linked by a clarinet cadenza.

The work opens with a section marked “Slowly and expressively”. The Spanish clarinettist Maximiliano Martín and the Tenerife orchestra play this serene, poignant music beautifully, though ideally I would have liked a shade more stillness. With the arrival of the cadenza the languid mood is soon dispelled, with syncopated rhythmic patterns increasingly dominant, preparing the final movement with fragments of its melodic material. Eventually a rapid ascending scale leads into the new tempo, marked “rather fast”. Copland himself described this second movement as “stark, severe and jazzy”. He also commented: “Some (of its) material represents an unconscious fusion of elements obviously related to North and South American popular music: Charleston rhythms, boogie woogie, and Brazilian folk tunes.” This spiky music, with an important piano part, contrasts vividly with the opening section of the work. Here I find that more edginess would have been desirable. Again it's beautifully played and there is a nice swing, but it's a little polite and some necessary aggression is missing. Where are the “stark, severe” qualities which Copland describes? As in the Nielsen, beauty of tone may beneficially be sacrificed at times.

I believe the Nielsen to be one of the great 20th-century concertos for any instrument, encompassing extremes of mood from explosive to beautifully tender. Today no clarinettist without a terrific technique would agree to play this work, and Martín is clearly impressive in this respect. However, more important in this volatile concerto, if one takes the technique for granted, is characterisation. What is this concerto about? - to put it crudely. It's “about” the character of a man and his conflicting moods. The temperament of the clarinettist/dedicatee was irascible, though his wild, fly-off-the-handle episodes would usually give way to ashamed introspection and remorse. Nielsen brilliantly captures these mood-swings. As early as his Second Symphony (The Four Temperaments – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine) he exercised his great interest in personal characteristics and this concerto is a more mature work, rich in human experience and understanding. I feel that real anger is missing in Martín's performance, as well as danger – a feeling of being on the edge. On this showing I certainly don't feel that Oxenvad, the dedicatee whose extraordinary character inspired the piece, is a person to avoid. It's all rather too normal and even bland. The piece needs a sense of risk, some venom, even ugliness at times. Without these qualities we do not penetrate beneath the surface. By the way, “Caprices” in the CD's title is misleading in relation to the Nielsen, suggesting none of the violent element. The trouble with minimising the anger is that we also lose the immense relief and poignancy when the remorse takes over. Extremes of emotion are essential to this piece and the finest interpreters are the ones brave enough to touch them.

Much as I warm to James MacMillan (having worked under him in his conducting role) and admire his sincerity, I do have a problem with much of his music. I often find myself longing for some understatement or restraint. The Nielsen concerto visits extremes, it is true, but these are intrinsic to the mercurial nature of his music. MacMillan generally seems to me too unrelentingly emotional and subjective. (I have the same reaction to much of Mahler, so perhaps I have a deficiency in something.) Having said that, I find Tuíreadh (= lament or requiem) a more thoughtful work, meditative and often very restrained. Much of the piece is static. In July 1988 a terrible fire started on Piper Alpha, an oil platform in the North Sea, resulting in 167 deaths. Originally written for clarinet and string quartet, Tuíreadh is dedicated to the victims and their families. MacMillan described it as “an outpouring of grief in music”, which makes it sound more overwhelmingly emotional than it actually is. The keening of mourners is an unmistakable influence. If there is one phenomenon to which music cannot do full justice, it is a major disaster of this kind. Attempts to evoke in music such horrors seem to have been more common in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is difficult to recall any major composer of previous centuries who took a particular tragedy as a subject for programmatic musical expression. I think those previous composers were wise. Devotees of MacMillan's music will probably enjoy Tuíreadh and find themselves more in tune with it than I am. He is, I am sure, completely genuine in expressing himself in this way, but I am simply unable to respond.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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