This disc is the culmination of a project, conceived by clarinettists Lynsey Marsh and Elizabeth Jordan after each lost a parent to complications with Parkinson’s Disease. A concert in 2016 raised funds for Parkinson’s UK and the musicians then went into the studio to make this disc, all proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to Parkinson’s Disease charities.
Mind Music on the Divine Art label, presents four pieces all with links to neuro-degenerative conditions. Some of the links are slightly tenuous, but overall it makes for a striking and unusual programme: Felix Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No. 1 in F major Op.113 for clarinet, basset horn and orchestra, Richard Strauss’s Sonatina No. 1 for Wind instruments in F major, AV 135 “From an Invalid’s Workshop”, John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons and Kevin Malone’s The Last Memory. The performers are Elizabeth Jordan (clarinet/basset horn), Lynsey Marsh (clarinet), Northern Chamber Orchestra, conductor Stephen Barlow. Barlow is the artistic director of the Buxton Festival where the Northern Chamber Orchestra is the orchestra in residence, he conducts the Strauss and the Adams whilst Lynsey Marsh directs the Mendelssohn from the clarinet.
Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece Op.113 was written in 1833 for the father and son clarinettists, Heinrich and Carl Baerman, supposedly in return for them preparing Bavarian culinary classics for Mendelssohn when they visited Berlin. It is a relatively short piece, and evidently the Baerman’s did a lot of editing but all concerned were happy and Mendelssohn went on to write his opus 114 for them as well. The opening Allegro con fuoco combines a rather dramatic recitative with a charming Allegro in a manner which recalls Carl Maria von Weber (whose clarinet concertos were written for Baerman senior). The second movement Andante is a rather Bellini-esque duet, the two instruments undulating in parallel over a simple accompaniment, and both Bellini and Weber seem to hover over the perky, up-tempo final movement which ends with a wonderful farty low note for the bassett horn. It is a lovely piece and I don’t understand why it is not better known. The terrific solo parts are played with wit and charm by Jordan and Marsh.
Whilst Richard Strauss had written works for large wind ensemble in the 1880s, it was not a form that he returned to until the 1940s. In fact, after Capriccio in 1942 he resolved to stop writing music, though a number of late pieces date from this final period. The Sonatina No. 1 was written for a wind ensemble with a larger than usual clarinet section, a clarinets in C, B flat and A, a basset-horn and a bass clarinet. Strauss has used a larger clarinet section in some of his operas and like the timbre. The work’s subtitle From an invalid’s workshop could refer to the composer’s recent worrying bout of influenza (then still potentially fatal), but he was also depressed due the war and in particular the recent destruction of the Munich Court Theatre.
It is a long work, nearly 40 minutes, and if the music is not immediately familiar the style certainly is, this could not be anything but late Richard Strauss. The opening Allegro moderato is lyrical, yet not uncomplex and full of long-breathed Strauss melodies with a series of solo moments. The middle movement combines a Romance based on a long unfolding melody with a rather more perky Minuet. The Romance does indeed have moments of full blown romanticism, whilst the Minuet provides a complete change of mood. The Finale is played with an engaging vivacity and sense of lyricism. The music varies from the perky to the full blown romantic, here played with a lovely freedom. This movement lasts a little over 15 minutes with Strauss using his familiar technique of the constantly promised and constantly delayed climax. The extra clarinets do indeed provide a very distinct timbre to the music, and the whole is played with great warmth and affection.
John Adams clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons is tied up with his memories of his father (who was a clarinettist and who taught Adams the clarinet), and his father’s Alzheimer’s Disease. The work is performed by for solo clarinet (Elizabeth Jordan), string quartet and double bass, guitar (doubling banjo and mandolin), piano (doubling sampler) and keyboard sampler).
The first movement, The Perilous Shore, uses a melody based on a Protestant shape-note hymn. First presented by the solo clarinet, the melody is elaborated from the beginning and Adams gradually adds different colours (the sampling keyboard has a remarkable range of timbres) and harmonies to the solo line, and ultimately a hint of klezmer. The movement is toccata-like in the way the melody line is in constant movement. Jordan is tireless in the terrific solo part, and everyone plays with infectious vitality. The second movement, Hoedown (Mad Cow) has a sense of a country band playing a waltz gone a bit crazy. It is mad, but engaging and full of vibrant colour. The final movement, Put Your Loving Arms Around Me is a lush romantic number, with moments of really high intensity and again some intriguing colours. For all the engaging performance from all concerned, I did worry that at 27 minutes long the piece might just outstay its welcome.
The final piece on the disc, Kevin Malone’s The Last Memory is for clarinet (Lynsey Marsh) and digital delay unit. Malone’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996 and this piece explores Malone’s feelings about forgetfulness, flawed memories and such. The clarinet plays into a microphone which repeats each not 12 times, trapping the player and the audience in a series of inescapable loops. The results are amazing, and Malone’s writing incredibly clever as he exploits the delay to add a remarkable richness. Though the piece might come out of his father’s struggles, the music is extraordinarily inventive and rather powerful.
This is a lovely disc, and whilst you might prefer individual works played by other ensembles the performances here have such warmth and engagement that they make a delightful disc. The programme has the advantage of being full of relatively rare gems, which makes it so much more intriguing.