British Clarinet Sonatas
English clarinet music of the 20th century is something of a phenomenon. Perhaps by dint of the clarinet’s lyrical disposition, its wide tessitura and broad range of dynamics, especially of its ‘hushed quietness’, it clearly appealed to a broad array of composers, as did the brilliance of one of its most celebrated executants, Frederick Thurston (or his teacher Charles Draper), who was closely connected with many of them. Michael Collins, a pupil of Thea King (Mrs Thurston), brings myriad impressive nuances to his programme of five works written between 1911 and 1947. In Stanford’s pioneering Sonata, Op 129, he accentuates the composer’s brittler voice in the outer movements and the more lithe yet lamenting tones of the central ‘Caoine’. In Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata Collins seems almost to bathe in the rhapsodic atmosphere of the free melodic sections, while in the Howells Sonata the long sustained phrases (for which Thurston was known) are executed with control and with a sense of subtle melancholy quintessential to the introspective style of Howells’s chamber music.
Both Collins’s and Cox’s recordings feature the once hugely popular Bax Clarinet Sonata of 1934, a colourful and intensely romantic essay in two well-contrasted movements. Collins’s tone is glowingly sustained in the first movement and he is superbly accompanied by McHale in Bax’s almost orchestrally conceived piano part, though I confess to preferring his slightly more elastic interpretation with Ian Brown (Hyperion, 5/96). Cox’s finely paced performance, by contrast, is informed by a return to Bax’s original markings and phrasing through a study of the surviving manuscript. The two premiere recordings in Cox’s programme, Roger Fiske’s Sonata and Iain Hamilton’s Three Nocturnes, are works well worth a more prominent place in the repertoire, and Cox’s readings are deeply sympathetic. He and Buckle capture the imagery and intensity of Hugh Wood’s Paraphrase on ‘Bird of Paradise’ and round off the CD with a virtuoso display of agility and control in Richard Rodney Bennett’s acerbic Duo concertante of 1985.