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Clarinet Concerto in A minor, Op 80

'Finzi & Stanford: Clarinet Concertos' (CDH55101)
Finzi & Stanford: Clarinet Concertos
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Allegro moderato

Clarinet Concerto in A minor, Op 80
Stanford first wrote for the clarinet as early as 1880 (Three Intermezzi, Op 13), eleven years before Brahms wrote his four great works for that instrument. His ‘Concerto in one movement’ was written for Richard MühIfeld, who had premiered the Brahms works, but this dedication was later scratched from the autograph full score when Mühlfeld refused to play the work. Its first performance was given at Queen’s Hall in London on 20 June 1904 by Charles Draper for the ‘Philharmonic Society’, conducted by Stanford. Frederick Thurston, a pupil of Draper who was to become Britain’s leading clarinettist for over twenty-five years, played the concerto as a twenty-one-year-old student at the Royal College in 1922, under the watchful eye of the composer. A letter from Stanford to Thurston dated that year attests to the composer’s enthusiasm for the young soloist’s performance; warm words indeed from a man who was grudging in his praise. Thurston went on to give many successful performances during the following decades.

Despite its title, the work is clearly in three movements, the first two linked by a simple two-bar modulation, the second and third movements being bridged by a developed version of the work’s opening theme. Stanford begins the concerto with two strident, almost march-like tuttis, the clarinet answering each with a reflective triplet figure which in the second instance gives way to the buoyant rhythmic first theme. Poignant dialogue between the clarinet and various parts of the orchestra leads to the second theme. This is altogether more peaceful than the restless opening music. The clarinet is in quieter mood, accompanied by ever-present triplet figures. The march-like music reappears only to be guided by the clarinet into the quiet preparation for the second movement. It opens with a glorious (almost Bruckner-like) chorale for horns and strings, which is taken up by the clarinet and woodwinds, moving easily into the veiled colours of the movement’s second theme, a rising figure from the clarinet accompanied by lower strings. The orchestra is allowed to develop this idea while the solo part comments wistfully over the orchestra. Four bars from the opening chorale lead to a dramatic recitative for the clarinet, which finally falls away to the return and reworking of most of the second movement material. Inspired touches such as the clarinet playing the chorale theme over a shifting woodwind triplet figure serve to show Stanford’s complete mastery of orchestration. Just as the slow movement comes to its final resting point the opening music of the concerto re-emerges to take the listener with great force into the Finale.

No more Germanic drama here but a fine, lilting (and surely Irish) rondo-like theme with lots of spring in its heel and plenty of virtuosity for all concerned. One or two darker moments reflecting on the earlier movements fall to change the infectious mood of this Finale, which maintains its high spirits to the end of the concerto.

from notes by Alun Francis © 1986

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