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Abeille Musique, September 2008

Nigel Clarke embodies the new generation of British composers, musicians which are finally freed from the diktats of the 1970's avant-garde, and who therefore dare to write music that pleases them—and which appeals to the public—and who actually compose perfectly modern music. His influences are clearly Stravinsky, to which he adds a music corpus of all possible and imaginable origins, from Japan to Croatia via China and Turkey. If you consider that Clarke has signed several scores for famous feature films, the music lover will gather that they are faced with a multi-facetted composer, who stands out from any school or dogma, and whose works are highly likely to enthuse.

Clarke's major work of course remains `Samurai´, a powerful movement for wind orchestra and percussions alluding to the Homeric combats of the Japanese warriors of the Edo period: It seems that all of the world's wind orchestras have torn the score off each other's music stands, and that the work is hailed by audiences everywhere.

No doubt more ambitious, the magnificent Concerto for violin and winds (`Black Fire´)—written on the orchestral model of the Weill Concerto—reveals Clarke's music as more secretive, more exploratory, and bolder although still superb.

Without doubt, we have here one of the great European composers of times to come: take good note of his name.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, April 2008

My previous experience of the music of Nigel Clarke (b. 1960) did not bode well. I heard a piece called City in the Sea for euphonium and piano at London’s Purcell Room in January 2004 and, frankly, dismissed it as trivial. It is good to have the present disc as a sort of correctional, then, for Clarke emerges here as a clear and confident voice. His cause is helped by such committed performances, most notably from the violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved.

Clarke studied composition with Paul Patterson at the Royal Academy of Music in London, although his musical career actually began as a trumpeter in the British military (hence the ease with which he writes for military band, as amply demonstrated in Black Fire ). It was his interest in the music of the New Polish School of composers, though, that led him to his present path.

The three main works on the disc are Samurai (1995, revised 2007), The Miraculous Violin (2000), and Black Fire (2006). These works are punctuated with works for solo instruments: Pernambuco and Loulan for solo violin; and Premonitions for solo trumpet, with the latter acting as a prelude to Black Fire.

Clarke’s collaboration with Skærved dates back to 1984. It is a joy to hear Skærved so well recorded, so that his warm tone is so cleanly preserved. For the solo violin pieces, the balance is close, so that one can hear the different attacks and effects with remarkable immediacy. This is very physical music. The first piece we hear, Pernambuco , is brightly colored and even, at times, ferocious. It asks the violinist to stamp his foot while playing. The inspiration is not only the rhythm and color of South American folk instruments, but also because pernambuco, aka brazilwood, is vital to the construction of the modern bow. However, Clarke takes this music very much on a walk into his own territory.

The Miraculous Violin (2000) is scored for violin and strings and includes a cadenza composed by Skærved. There is more of a monumental feeling to this, as well as more of a feeling of the world of film music (Clarke has provided scores for several films). Again, Skærved tackles the difficulties of the solo part with real aplomb. The gestures here seem to lack the depth of Pernambuco , however, despite the many impressively atmospheric moments.

Loulan is a short, three-minute piece, the raw material of which is derived from authentic Chinese folk music (the Zinjiang province). The impression of the opening, of hesitancy, seems to sum up the elusive nature of this small but significant utterance that makes effective use of vocalisms, and is the polar opposite to the more extended Samurai for wind ensemble. Samurai was commissioned by the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and Timothy Reynis, although the premiere was due to take place in Japan. The score invokes the taiko, a huge Japanese drum used in warfare, and a conch-shell trumpet, the horagai. Far from being all battlefield evocation, however, the composer elected to include passages that make reference to ritual. These delicate Japonismes serve to placate the huge energies of the ferocious outgoing pages. The work ends with a shout from the orchestral musicians. The recording is so fine it could be used in demonstration situations.

Trumpeter Ivan Hutchinson dispatches the short Premonitions with superb control. Black Fire took as its inspiration Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, while the literary inspiration comes from Gustave Doré’s engravings from Milton’s Paradise Lost . Clarke further draws on Wagner— Götterdämmerung , to be exact, as if to emphasize the unstable emotional world he creates. Despite the unpredictable emotional turns this work presents, it ends with a lovely sense of warm light.

Thought-provoking music, then, if not of uniform inspiration. Worth exploring.

Carla Rees
MusicWeb International, March 2008

This is an interesting mix of works, by Nigel Clarke, an exciting emerging talent in the British contemporary music scene. Many of the works included here are world premiere recordings, and it is a real pleasure to hear them.

The opening track is Pernambuco, a seven minute extravaganza for solo violin. Expertly performed by Peter Sheppard Skaerved, this work is a virtuoso display of instrumental techniques, changing colours and emerging drama. The central lyrical section is captivating and forms a stark contrast with the highly demanding outer sections. The final part of the piece adds percussive effects, which add to the extreme physical demands of the work for the performer. This is a hugely enjoyable piece, which betrays Clarke’s abilities as a composer and his understanding of the instrument he is writing for.  The title refers to ‘brazil wood’, described in the programme notes as ‘vital to the construction of the modern bow’ and the piece as a whole deals with the subject of the bow as an instrument within its own right.

The Miraculous Violin was a commission from the British Council and I Solisti di Zagreb, and was composed in close collaboration with all the performers. This is a wonderful work, which engaged me thoroughly from beginning to end. Although this is concert music, it would not be out of place in a film score (in fact, Clarke is also a highly successful film composer). This is a dramatic piece which appeals to the imagination. Again hugely demanding for the performers, this piece is full of Eastern European colours, with a wonderful array of textures and ideas.  The playing is magnificent from all the performers; Longbow accompanies the solo violin line with panache and, once again, Peter Sheppard Skaerved gives a highly polished performance.

The remaining solo violin track on this disc is Loulan, a short piece which was inspired by traditional Chinese sounds and structures. Clarke creates an entirely different sound from the instrument than we have heard in the previous two pieces, demonstrating his versatility as a composer. His ability to conjure up images in his work is astonishing, and once again, the violin playing is exemplary.

The title track of this disc is Samurai, which is perhaps one of Clarke’s most well known and most frequently performed works. Composed for Wind Ensemble, the piece received its world premiere in Japan by the Royal Northern College of Music’s Wind Orchestra, as one of a number of works commissioned by Timothy Reynish for that ensemble. The title makes reference to Clarke’s admiration of the Samurai culture, and this explosive piece contains elements of Samurai warfare and culture. Sometimes looked down on as a poor substitute to an orchestra, the Wind Orchestra has, from time to time, suffered a bad press. However, well written repertoire such as this proves that there is an important role for this kind of ensemble. Clarke is a master of orchestration; the use of percussion here is particularly compelling.  The rhythmic drive is a life force of this work. This performance by the HM Royal Marines Band, Plymouth, has a wonderful sense of discipline and an underlying warmth of tone.

This is followed by Premonitions, a short work for solo trumpet, which serves as a prelude to Black Fire, a work for violin and wind ensemble. Premonitions is a strong piece, containing a range of expressions and colours. The performance here is excellent; Band Sergeant Ivan Hutchinson plays with real panache. Black Fire, the concluding work on the disc, has a range of influences in its composition, including Kurt Weill, Wagner (the work contains a quote from Götterdämmerung), Milton and engravings by Doré (these engravings inspired the title of the work). The solo violin provides a distinctive and sometimes sinister voice against the wind orchestra, with Clarke once again demonstrating his expertise as an orchestrator. There is much in this work to fuel the imagination.

This is a well produced recording which contains a fantastic array of works. The playing is consistently excellent and the diversity in Clarke’s output is impressive. Unmissable.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Nigel Clarke, born in England in 1960, started out his professional career as a trumpeter, but soon felt that he had to pursue further education to establish himself as a composer. There followed several important awards, his music for the cinema creating significant interest. Stylistically he belongs to that growing group of composers who use both tonal and atonal music as best suits their needs at the time, the creation of colour being one of the major ingredients. Only future generations will know whether any of today’s composers intent on exploring many possibilities will eventually establish that definable style that locks them into the listener’s memory. Clarke certainly shows considerable skill in his very diverse output, The Miraculous Violin, scored for violin and strings, being very easy to like, while the two pieces for solo violin, Pernambuco and Loulan offer a new look at the sound spectrum of a solo violin. Samurai was composed in 1995 for Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music Symphonic Wind Orchestra, the title and input relating to its premiere in Japan. It is far from easy to play, Clarke’s knowledge of wind instruments producing a fascinating score whose impact and local colours could well have come from a film score. Premonitions for solo trumpet acts as a prelude to the explosive Black Fire for solo violin and wind ensemble. Powerful, challenging and brilliantly scored, it again conjures up a film scenario. I don’t connect the Royal Marines band with contemporary music, but they show considerable expertise and commitment, while Skaerved’s violin playing is excellent. Very cleanly detailed sound.

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