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Track(s) taken from CDH55105

Rhapsodic Quintet, Op 31

composer

Dame Thea King (clarinet), The Britten String Quartet
Recording details: April 1990
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: July 1991
Total duration: 10 minutes 51 seconds
 
1

Although Stanford greatly favoured the clarinet (three Intermezzi for clarinet and piano 1880, Clarinet Concerto 1902, Sonata for clarinet, viola and piano c1912) his only pieces for clarinet quintet—the two Fantasies—were actually written (in 1921 and ’22 respectively) after Howells’s Quintet had been both composed (1919) and published (1921). Was Stanford stimulated (even inspired, for the Fantasies are vintage Stanford) by his favourite pupil’s success in a relatively un-favourite medium? He had every reason to be, for the Howells Quintet is not only one of his best works, but also a landmark in English chamber-musical history. Of course, though written just after the Great War, it belongs, like Stanford’s music, to an England, to an epoch, to a way of life, destroyed by that war in all or most of its essential aspects. (The same could be said of Howells’s other chamber music of this period, the Piano Quartet and the string quartet In Gloucestershire.)

Like all Howells, the Rhapsodic Quintet is basically song. Howells liked strings (he composed various works for string orchestra as well as for quartet) because of their nearness in character to the human voice, and no woodwind instrument is more vocal in terms of expressivity and melodiousness than the clarinet. As for ‘rhapsodic’, this is often used in a pejorative sense, implying a ramshackle structure. By no stretch of the imagination could the structure of the Rhapsodic Quintet be described as ‘ramshackle’. On the contrary it is highly organized, and the listener will have no difficulty in spotting the two main themes and following their exposition, development and recapitulation. ‘Rhapsodic’ refers more to the overall one-movement shape, which encompasses a number of contrasting moods or phases. But Howells is no meanderer; he knows where he is going and what he has to do on the way. He is also a supreme poet. Thea King reckons the closing section of the quintet to be one of the loveliest moments in music—the peace of ages is in it—and she is sure to find many to agree with her.

from notes by Christopher Palmer 1991

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