Chamber works Wigmore Soloists BIS 2547

Howard Ferguson (1908-1999)
Octet, Op 4 (1933)
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Clarinet Quintet, F.20 (1932)
Robin Holloway (b. 1943)
Serenade in C for octet, Op 41 (1979)
Michael Collins (clarinet, Bliss), Wigmore Soloists
rec. 17-19 December 2021 (Ferguson, Bliss), 13-14 April 2023 (Holloway), Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, England
BIS BIS-2547 SACD [74]

Nailing my colours to the mast, I suggest that Howard Ferguson’s Octet is one of the most significant English chamber music works from the 1930s. The equilibrium of the movements is key to its success. The thoughtful opening Moderato is complete with its allusion to the horn theme from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. There follows a vibrant, if uneasy, scherzo with quite a few melodic episodes; there is a definite Celtic feel in these pages, which may reflect Ferguson’s birthplace, Belfast. The lyrical slow movement has pastoral charm, with just the hint of something a touch more demanding. This serenity is destroyed by the rhythmic intensity of the Allegro feroce. But all is not so strict: sweeping big tunes of an almost filmic nature interrupt the proceedings.

To be sure, much of the Octet nods at various characteristics of English music current at that time. It is not pastoral as such, but does have several passages that can be so described. So are nods to neo-classicism and even the modernism of Bliss and Walton. What is absent is any hint of serialism or atonality.

The Octet was dedicated to R. O. Morris, Ferguson’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music. It was first conceived as a quintet for clarinet and strings, and then modified into a septet with the addition of the bassoon and the French horn. At Morris’s suggestion, the instrumentation was expanded to include a second violin. This made it a fine companion to Schubert’s Octet in F major D803.

Two other versions of Howard Ferguson’s Octet in circulation are by the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion (CDA66192, 1990) and by Dennis Brain with the Griller Quartet et al. on Dutton Epoch (CDAX8014, 1937/2019).

Arthur Bliss noted that “the personality of a great player has often been the incentive for me to compose a work”. He cited as examples the Oboe Quintet for Leon Goossens, the Viola Sonata for Lionel Tertis, the Piano Concerto for Solomon, and the Violin Concerto for Campoli. The Clarinet Quintet, premiered in 1933 by Frederick Thurston and the Kutcher String Quartet, was dedicated to composer Bernard van Dieren. But a deeper inspiration can be sensed in these pages: Bliss’s brother Kennard, killed during the First World War, was an accomplished clarinettist.

The overall temper of the Quintet is one of lyricism and, to a certain extent, resignation. Various moods inherent in the four movements include serenity, animation and drama, but – as the blurb suggests – “the sunny, extrovert aspects of Bliss’s character ultimately prevail in the brilliantly energetic finale”.

Contemporary criticism noted that with the Clarinet Quintet, Bliss had moved on from his “enfant terrible” period. It is fair to say that this is one of his masterpieces, certainly in his chamber music. Clarinettist Michael Collins and the Wigmore Soloists give a wonderful performance.

Other satisfactory recordings include those by David Campbell with the Maggini Quartet on Naxos (8.557394; review) and by Janet Hilton with the Lindsay String Quartet on Chandos (CHAN 8683). There are also two releases of Frederick Thurston and the Griller Quartet’s 1930s recording on Testament (SBT1366) and Clarinet Classics (CC0037).

My review of Robin Holloway’s five-movement Serenade is beholden to the liner notes. The opening Marcia is full of “quirky cross-rhythms” complemented by a pleasant trio section. The short Menuetto alla tarantella is vigorous and dynamic, with a big tune for the bassoon and jazz-like pizzicato on the double bass. While it is the official slow movement, the Andante is characterised by curious wit and tongue-in-cheek commentary. It is a wayward set of variations based on a “touching, sincere, naïve” melody discovered in a Methodist hymnbook. A second Menuetto follows, with its nods to Poulenc and Schubert. Once again, it is contrary, with the conventional repeats going “off in different directions.” The Serenade concludes with another tarantella where “scraps of silly tune are put through the textural, tonal and rhythmic mincer”.

The Serenade charms with humour and mischievousness. Holloway notes its clichés, parodies, and “commonplace” musical devices, but there also is “compositional rigour” and a profound understanding of the possibilities of the various instruments. The scoring is the same as in Schubert’s and Ferguson’s Octets. Holloway acknowledges the former as a model. This is music for entertainment, “making few intellectual demands”, at a stylistic distance from the composer’s more modernist offerings. (I recall being baffled by one of his Concertos for Orchestra.) Even so, I doubt Classic FM will be playing this Serenade anytime soon.

Philip Borg-Wheeler’s liner notes (in English, French and German) are helpful in every way. There is also a short note about the Wigmore Players.

This outstanding survey of three characteristic chamber works gives us splendid examples of deeply personal utterances by composers of different stylistic mores, superbly written for their medium. All performances, committed and inspiring, are complimented by an excellent recording.

John France

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