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Emma Johnson, clarinet – “An English Fantasy” – Works of TODD, READE, DANKWORTH & HAWES – Nimbus Alliance

Charming new pieces played wonderfully!

Emma Johnson, clarinet – “An English Fantasy” = WILL TODD: Concerto for Emma; PAUL READE: Suite from “A Victorian Kitchen Garden”; JOHN DANKWORTH: Clarinet Concerto – “The Woolrich”; PATRICK HAWES: Clarinet Concerto – with BBC Concert Orch./Philip Ellis – Nimbus Alliance NI6328 [Distr. by Naxos], 69:19 (8/12/16) ****:

I have been a fan of the ‘English school’ of clarinet playing and music for many years, now, going back to my growing up listening to the great Gervase de Peyer and Jack Brymer. There is a full, rounded tone quality to English clarinet artistry, a bit ‘darker’ tone quality than the French and just the right touch of vibrato. While Emma Johnson’s tone is not identical to my idol, Gervase de Peyer, she has been one of England’s greatest and best known clarinetists for many years now and one of my favorites!

This is an absolutely gorgeous and captivating collection of some modern works written for Emma and the feel of these terrific works runs from the idyllic and pastoral to the overtly jazzy. To start with, the Will Todd Concerto for Emma is a simply wonderful and jazz-inspired work, the center-piece of which is the middle movement. This “Ballad” is a truly moving and somewhat languid aria that is simply stunning. The outer movements are more blues and jazz inflected and very pleasing.  I know of Will Todd largely from his fun children’s opera based on Alice in Wonderland. I think I need to hear more of his music!

The Victorian Kitchen Garden suite by Paul Reade is, literally, selections from a soundtrack to a British cooking show. The work was conceived for Emma and for clarinet and piano. Reade arranged the work for her in the presentation orchestration. It is an absolutely melodic and lovely collection of five short works which evoke the seasons. I have played the piece a few times and love it in any guise.

The last two composers I admit I do not know much about. Sir John Dankworth wrote a number of concert works as well as soundtracks. This Concerto, written for Emma Johnson, is so-named the “Woolrich” because of the section of London in which Johnson lived. This very nice piece also has a jazzy and ethnic tinge to it, in part in to Dankworth’s own clarinet experiences in the jazz realm; both himself and with his wife, jazz vocalist Cleo Laine.

Patrick Hawes is an interesting composer whose music is often inspired by English themes and folklore; such as – in the case of the Clarinet Concerto – Arthurian legend. This work is challenging and attention-getting (right up to the “double B-flat” that the clarinet gets to hold out at the end.) It is however also very tuneful, including some nice moments for the strings. The work successfully conveys a sense of majesty and the feudalism of the past. All in all, another very fine addition to the already rich clarinet repertoire.

This is simply one of the most attractive new clarinet discs I have heard in a while. Emma Johnson remains one of the very best performers in the world and these works are all splendid. My personal favorites are the Todd and the Dankworth but I imagine everyone would like this entire album.  Bravo!

—Daniel Coombs

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