This two-disc set is a logical extension of a 2016 benefit concert for the charity Parkinson’s UK organized by the solo clarinetists, each of whom lost a parent to Parkinson’s disease in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will be donated to Parkinson’s UK. This context adds a certain poignancy and significance to a recording that stands on its own as a finely executed program of chamber works.
The first disc is devoted to two substantial 19th-century chamber works, beginning with Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No. 1 in F Major, op. 113. Although the tempo of the first movement feels a touch too slow, the soloists—in particular Elizabeth Jordan on basset horn—more than compensate with warm sound and refined playing. Their interplay in the second movement is nuanced and understated, perfect for Mendelssohn’s conservative style. Like the opening, the presto finale lacks some of the verve implied by the tempo marking, but the technical playing of the soloists is pristine, especially in the passagework. Richard Strauss’s expansive Sonatina No. 1 in F Major, AV 135 follows, full of the chromaticism and sweeping lines one associates with the composer of tone poems. The Northern Chamber Orchestra winds are in fine form here, rich horn lines emerging effortlessly from the texture and mingling with flute and clarinet figures. Crescendos reach their peaks in complete synchronicity and the balance among players is virtually flawless. The high register playing is occasionally too strident, but this is a minor issue.
The second disc features two contemporary works, first among them John Adams’s Gnarly Buttons, an homage to his father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. The three-movement work opens with an unaccompanied clarinet twisting and turning through the melodic material that forms the basis of the music that follows. As the music builds in intensity, more voices join in. The orchestra’s sound is more focused and raw here, and they seem well at ease in Adams’s Postmodern idiom. Amid the more novel sounds of a banjo and synthesizers, it is easy to overlook the precision of the strings and incisive performances by the brass and winds. Jordan’s solo performance is particularly impressive here, a combined feat of technique, musicianship, and endurance. The final work on the CD is another composer’s homage to a father lost to Alzheimer’s, Kevin Malone’s The Last Memory. Using a digital delay unit to evoke a world of fractured and repetitive memories, the piece is a familiar and painful experience for anyone who has witnessed a loved one suffering from the kind of dementia Malone depicts. Lynsey Marsh manages to capture the confusion and obsession that plague the condition brilliantly, from disoriented fear to the comfort of a familiar polka. This is neither an easy piece to play nor a pleasant one to hear, and a wholly appropriate way to end such a program.
Mind Music is polished, expressive, and programmed coherently. More than that, however, it is a provocation to think more deeply about neurodegenerative conditions, the relationships between music and health, and the role of music as a social force. Mind Music should not be dismissed as a “fundraiser,” though that is indeed one of its raisons d’etre. It is equally successful as a recording divorced from any extramusical factors, but it is surely enhanced by them.