British Clarinet Sonatas, Vol. 1

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COMPOSERS: Stanford/Howells/Bax/Ireland/Bliss
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: British Clarinet Sonatas, Vol. 1
WORKS: Clarinet Sonatas
PERFORMER: Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)


Surprises all the way? Indeed – which might not be what you would expect from this kind of exploration into the byways of British music. Convenient ‘English music’ pigeon-holing is subverted by the presence of Ireland’s Charles Stanford. His Clarinet Sonata sums up the musical climate of its pre-First World War era: while its two outer movements are predictable and super-fluent exercises in Brahms-cloning, its central one, ‘Caoine’ (Lament), searches out a streak of lyrical poignancy that’s both distinctive and memorable.

The short Pastoral, by a Royal College of Music student called Arthur Bliss, is written with a precise ear for sonority. So, too, is John Ireland’s single-movement Fantasy-Sonata of 1943, with its Prokofiev-like punchy rhythms. Bax’s journey through misty-isle territory in his two-movement Sonata is attractive, atmospheric, and (for once) he doesn’t ramble; and the long-spun lines of the first movement of Howells’s Sonata are appealing.

Collins’s clarinet-playing mesmerises the ear: the closing phrase of Stanford’s ‘Caoine’ movement shows what a player in this league can convey in just two quiet notes. Without snatching the limelight, Michael McHale’s accompanying finds a range of keyboard colours in, above all, the works by Ireland and Howells, making their individual sound-worlds seem unexpectedly subtle and rich.


Malcolm Hayes