Rediscovered British Clarinet Concertos Deserve a Listen

This is a wonderful collection of music. And, I think, it makes a point. The classical repertoire is so rich that no matter how tightly focused the program, there are plenty of gems to choose from. In this case, the focus is clarinet concertos by British composers from the first half of the 20th Century — specifically, 1930-1947.

Clarinetist Peter Cigleris presents four works that make me wonder how many other such concertos — and composers — are awaiting rediscovery. Cigleris plays with a warm, mellow tone that brings out the lyricism in these works. His exceptional breath control lets the melodies spin out, making gossamer traces through the air. And yet he can give his clarinet’s sound an edge when called for.

I had never heard of Susan Spain-Dunk before this release. She was most active in the 1920s and 1930s. Her 1931 Catalina for clarinet and orchestra is gorgeous. Stylistically, it seemed to me like a blend of Debussy and Elgar, creating something familiar yet new.

Pianist Rudolph Dolmetsch was part of a musical family. His Concerto for Clarinet and Harp from 1939 is a good-natured showpiece. It has more of an English character than Spain-Dunk’s work, with a more modern sound that leans towards Arthur Bliss. The interplay between clarinet and harp makes this one a winner.

The Serenata Concertante for Clarinet and Small Orchestra by Peter Wishart is the most dramatic of the four concertos. It was written in 1947 and perhaps articulates some of the turmoil of the times. There are also some very fine lyrical passages. Wishart incorporates a tune that sounded to me quite close to a Christmas carol.

Elizabeth Maconchy is the best-known of the four composers. But her Clarinet Concertino still needed rediscovery. Machonchy’s concertino is the most modern-sounding of the four concertos. It’s highly rhythmic and quite energetic. And I’m hoping more clarinetists will program it.

Peter Cigleris has done a singular service by recording these works. It’s not likely I’ll ever hear any of them in live performances. And all four are works I’ve very glad I heard.

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by
Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wisart
Peter Cigleris, clarinet
Deian Rowlands, harp
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Ben Palmer, conductor
Cala Signum SIGCD631

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