Works for Clarinet and Orchestra
Like Emma Johnson's previous ASV coupling of Crusell, Weber, Baermann and Rossini (DCA559, 5/86; CD CDDCA559, 11/86), this new issue links a major clarinet concerto with an attractive range of shorter clarinet pieces. That may go against the current fashion in record-programming, but Emma Johnson's musical personality is more than positive enough to make the mix pointful and attractive, providing different slants on a highly-individual artist. One feels that the young soloist has chosen these works, not because she ought to, but because this is music she especially enjoys and about which she has something special to say.
Though in these circumstances comparisons are of limited value, they may help to bring out the individual qualities of the playing. In the Weber First Concerto, Emma Johnson's manner is subtler and more affectionate than that of Janet Hilton for example on her all-Weber coupling on Chandos. In the first movement, with pianissimos even gentler than those of Gervase de Peyer on his attractive recital disc, now available on CfP, she brings out a rare quality of mystery; even of introduction. In the slow movement she is even more distinctive and persuasive than de Peyer in her espressivo shading of tone and dynamic. Some may well prefer the plain, brisker manner of Janet Hilton, but the poetry of Johnson puts the performance in a different bracket of artistry. So too in the sparkling finale, in which Emma Johnson is the lightest and wittiest of the three, with the lyrical central episode yearningly beautiful.
Comparing her performance of the Crusell Variations with the delightful account that Thea King included on her Hyperion disc of trifles, one at once identifies a closer kinship, for both soloists are artists with the sort of flair that makes even the most banal phrases sound new and fresh. If anything it is Emma Johnson who is the more carefree in her fun-making, wittier, naughtier, youthfully daring.
The Concertino which Gordon Jacob put together from selected movements out of two Tartini violin sonatas is musically a curiosity, but another good vehicle for an imaginative clarinettist. It is not just schooling in authentic performance that makes one do a double-take hearing a clarinet in such baroque inventions. The relative roundness and fruitiness of the solo instrument make the result sound a little heavy, despite the point and artistry of the player. Debussy's Premiere rapsodie (he never wrote a second) is in some ways the gem of the collection, for there Emma Johnson's warmth, her love of the subtlest timbres, run no risk of being thought excessive. This lovely piece has rarely sounded more ravishing, and recordings are not so common that this one should be neglected.
My one reservation is that Johnson's mercurial lightness in many of the bravura passages in these works, in itself a positive merit, allows the occasional note in passage-work to be less-than-perfectly articulated. Thea King for one is firmer and cleaner in her articulation. Under Yan Pascal Tortelier the English Chamber Orchestra give nicely-scaled support, set in a helpful but not cavernous acoustic with the soloist firmly placed in front of the orchestra, realistically so, not spotlit.