Works for clarinet and orchestra
It was this Crusell Grand Concerto which Emma Johnson played, when two years ago, she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. As she explains in a personal note on the record-sleeve, that occasion was the first time she had ever played a concerto with a full symphony orchestra, and her special affection for the piece, her total joy in each of the three movements, comes over vividly in this recorded performance. As in her recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concert for ASV last year (DCA532, 6/85; CD CDDCA532), the uninhibited spontaneity of her playing, exactly matching a live performance, brings an extra compulsion and immediacy of expression. When I heard this new disc, I had just been listening to the new CD transfer of Jacqueline du Pre's recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, made when she was only 20, and the kinship between the two was striking. The Crusell Concerto has little or nothing of the depth of the Elgar, but Emma Johnson in each movement similarly translates the notes with very personal phrasing and expression, always taking risks and bringing them off. This is a daring performance, naughtily lilting in the outer movements, happily songful in the Andante pastorale of the slow movement. The comparison with Thea King on Hyperion is fascinating, for long one of my favourite clarinettists on record. In the outer movements King is a degree crisper and more poised, but she does not convey quite the same fun or sparkle, and—partly a question of recording—the first movement is on a smaller scale, less urgently dramatic. The slow movement is even more ravishing with King, but Johnson has pastoral freshness as a counterbid.
In the three delightful shorter pieces on the reverse the contrasts with previous recordings are rather similar, with Gervase de Peyer in the Weber and Rossini (HMV ASD2455, 5/69—nla) and with Jack Brymer in the Baermann—once attributed to Wagner—(Argo ZRG604, 9/69). In each Johnson may not have quite the same technical perfection as those distinguished predecessors, but the free expressiveness could not be more winning. With her brilliant passages of the Weber and the Rossini may not be quite so fast or brilliant as with de Peyer, but they are more fun. Her moulding of legato melodies in both those works, as well as the Baermann, brings warmer expressiveness, with freer rubato and sharper contrasts of tone and dynamic. The orchestral sound is full and bright, with Groves a lively and sympathetic accompanist. The clarinet sound is less sharply defined than on most concerto records, but pleasantly set within the orchestra rather than in front of it. The issue is well-timed to coincide with this year's Young Musician of the Year competition.'