Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

BRITISH CHAMBER MUSIC for clarinet and string quartet. Clarinet Quintets by BLISS, RAWSTHORNE AND ROUTH.    Redcliffe Ensemble Redcliffe Recordings RR010 [63' 31"]
This disc is currently on special offer at $18
post free world-wide

As a professional, as well as a truthful man, I have to say that Sir Arthur Bliss is, by far, a greater composer than Elgar, Britten or Tippett. He deserves a higher profile since the quality of his music both demands and expects this.

His Clarinet Quintet was written in 1932 and has, as its inspiration, the memory of his younger brother Kennard who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Kennard was a clarinettist and his death, and the horrors of war, deeply affected Bliss. He thought long and hard before composing his Clarinet Quintet and it is a beautiful work. It eschews all the weaknesses of ghastly clichés; it does not reek of stiff upper-lip pomposity; it does not meander in nauseating self-indulgence, it has no extremes; it is not a dreary collection of slow moving movements resembling huge grey concrete slabs. It is neither a depressing nor a nostalgic work but a work of serenity; it is often sunny and, as the booklet states, the spirit of the dance is never far away.

There are four movements; Moderato, Allegro molto, Adagietto espressivo and Allegro energico. The core of the work is the slow movement and while it is intense it is not heavy nor does the music stutter with false starts or regular changes of tempo.

The opening movement begins with a clarinet solo, beautifully played by Nicholas Cox. Gradually the strings are employed in a warm exchange of memorable thematic material expertly integrated. There is sorrow here but it is the acceptance of it, not a futile protest at it. Lovely music indeed and possessing a mercurial continuity.

The allegro molto is a gorgeous movement of great spirit and, again, it is beautifully written and played in such an endearing way the music's warmth is captivating. The movement maintains its interest not only by the quality of the music but by its variety of expression. Pizzicato is used to telling effect.

The adagietto is a tranquil elegy thematically linked to the other movements. Here is no Edwardian wallow but a movement of tremendous serenity and integrity ... and I return to my opening phrase ... Bliss is, by far, a greater composer than Elgar, Britten or Tippett.. The finale dances unashamedly in E major. It is a brilliant movement, but may occasionally lose its way.

I had some lessons with Alan Rawsthorne who was an extraordinary character. I could tell many stories about him but I will confine myself here to his Clarinet Quintet of 1946. It is in three movements and shows both his love of Bartók and neoclassical Stravinsky and his infuriating habit of including that melodic phrase that seems to appear in so many works which seems to be his autograph, circa 2' 50" into the first movement.

Alan was a somewhat lazy composer and he openly admitted this to be the case. His music became somewhat passive and inert particularly after the brilliance of his Piano Concerto No 1 ... Or, at least, this is the usual criticism made of his music. Where he does succeed is in his structural design. He planned movements in detail as if he were an architect preparing a blueprint. Not only this, but he was concerned with texture, the arrangement of his material among the forces available and in his chamber music he succeeds very well. I cannot say the same for his orchestral works.

As to his Clarinet Quintet, I find it disappointing in many ways. The finale is described in the booklet as a furiant! Really? The music is lazy... some may say leisurely. It gets nowhere. It is arid.

Francis Routh is an under-rated composer. As with Bliss he has a wonderful affinity with chamber music and, incidentally, he is a brilliant composer of organ and piano music. His recent Scenes for Piano IV: Bretagne written for Lora Dimitrova is another success. His Clarinet Quintet of 1994, written for Nicholas Cox, is in five movements. The opening Vivace has both a rhythmic pulse and humour but the contrasting slower section may hinder the movement's continuity and impact. It is best when it bustles! The second movement is headed slow and is a long movement, compared with the other four. But its lyricism is well-conceived particularly when the clarinet's high register is used. This calls for a clarinettist of secure intonation and control and here we have one. The vivace, con moto has a welcome brilliance and the fourth movement allegro, minuet and trio is curious and follows the Beethoven tradition of a minuet you would have difficulty dancing to. Great fun!

The finale more than hints at the character of the opening movement.

The performances are very good. The violist's tone is ravishing. The recording is exemplary.

Visit the Redcliffe website


David Wright




David Wright



Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase

Return to Index