NIGEL CLARKE, “Music for Thirteen Solo Strings” = Parnassus; The Scarlet Flower; Dogger, Fisher, German, Bight, Huber, Thames, Dover, Wight; Pulp and Rags; Epitaph for Edith Carvell – Sebastien Rousseau, Flugelhorn/ Malene Sheppard Skaerved, speaker/ Peter Sheppard Skaerved, violin/ Longbow ensemble – Toccata Classics TOCC 0325, 72:10, [Distr. By Naxos] (9/28/15) ***:

A little bit of a mixed bag from this English composer.

First, I had never heard of English composer Nigel Clarke until this disc, I admit. Clarke studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Paul Patterson, winning the Josiah Parker Prize (adjudicated by Sir Michael Tippett) and the Academy’s highest distinction, the Queen’s Commendation for Excellence. He has held positions as Head of Composition at the London College of Music and Media, visiting tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music, Associate Composer to the Black Dyke Band and many others. In 1997, Clarke joined the United States International Visitor Leadership Program sponsored by the US Information Agency. He is currently a Visiting Composer to the Middle Tennessee State University Bands.

The music herein is interesting to be sure but I found it a bit of a mixed bag. One of the main premises of this particular recording is Clarke’s long standing collaboration with violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, who also directs the Longbow ensemble. So, each of these works is anchored by the “thirteen solo strings” of Longbow and a solo component in some cases.

I enjoyed The Scarlet Flower for Flugelhorn quite a bit. The inherently jazzy timbre of the Flugel horn works well with the oscillating strings in this work that reminded me just a bit of Britten in places. Well-played by Mr. Rousseau as well. I also admit freely that I rather enjoyed the longest work here with the absolute weirdest title.

Dogger, Fisher, German, Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight are all references to both the English seaside as well as a poem by the speaker, Malene Sheppard Skaerved. The music uses a number of “sea painting” references including Debussy’s La Mer, the Britten Four Sea Interludes and the emblematic British prayer-hymn Melita. We also have a recorded ‘soundscape’ of some wave sounds from Dover Beach. I am neither a big fan of works for speaker/narrator and orchestra nor of works with long, unwieldy titles (of which this is certainly an example) but I did admire the drama and picturesque quality of this nearly thirty-minute work. I found it creative and it held my attention.

What’s odd, to me, is that the works for the “thirteen solo strings” – in the very capable hands of Skaerved and Longbow, just did not capture my attention as well as these others.

The opening Parnassus is a very well-crafted work that seems designed to showcase the various contemporary possibilities of this ensemble and does contain a number of specialized string effects but just did not do a lot for me. The composer acknowledges some inspiration from the work of Lutaslawski. I felt similarly about the clever little Pulp and Rags written (and so-named) in homage to the important but now gone Buckland Paper Mill. This is a largely catchy work but it seems like one of the pieces that is more fun to play than to listen to. (I didn’t quite relate to the booklet notes’ reference to the “driving Michael Jackson-like bass line which powers much of the piece.” I thought, ‘Really?’)

The Epitaph for Edith Carvell for solo violin has a dark inspiration behind it, as apparently the woman of the title was a British nurse executed by firing squad in Brussels during World War I. This is a pensive and emotional work, as expected, that reminded me of some Britten, again.

I recognize that this recording was sponsored by the Dover Arts Development council and all these pieces has some meaning or connection to the history and culture of that area. I did not dislike any of these pieces. I did, however, have a little more enthusiasm for some than others. I thought perhaps string players would enjoy this, in general, and that The Scarlet Flower and Dogger, Fisher (et al) were highlights.

—Daniel Coombs