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Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Good to have this provocative, well recorded and documented collection of modern British clarinet quintets. No ‘usual suspects’ here. Instead we are proffered works that bid fair to engage the established repertoire in years to come.

Edwin Roxburgh is onstage first and kicks the door in with his single movement Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. The music is urgent, violent and vehement with no hang-ups about dissonance or about moving into an eldritch shadow-world. He is not long-winded and for all his modernistic tendencies this work is driven by a romantic sensibility even if it is prone to impish devilment. Roxburgh in his liner-notes points out that he has also written “a concerto for Gervase de Peyer (recorded by Linda Merrick on NMC D119), Wordsworth Miniatures for solo clarinet (commissioned and recorded by Linda Merrick), Dithyramb 1 for clarinet and percussion…and a quartet for clarinets, Heliochrome.”

Kit Turnbull’s Three Cautionary Tales are drawn from a sweeter spring. The Carbrooke Dancers is said to be “inspired by the medieval legend of young girls turned to stone after dancing to the music of a strange fiddler in a churchyard.” The music is both tonal and merry. The Mermaid’s Pool evokes “the legend of drowned young women who lured passers-by into sharing their fate through their hypnotic songs.” This is more contemplative and takes the shape of a grave slow dance—rather Dowland-like though filtered through twentieth century pastoral mists. The finale, Lantern Man, is suggestive of the lights that flicker and beckon the unwise into marshland at night. These are very attractive haunting miniatures—a sort of modern English echo of Erben’s Czech tales. Turnbull is an Ellerby pupil.

Nigel Clarke’s Equiano “is inspired by the life story of Nigerian-born Olaudah Equiano (1745–97), who at the age of eleven was kidnapped and sold to slave traders. Transported to Virginia, he was subsequently bought by a British naval officer and taken to London…He bought his freedom in 1833, and became an important member of the abolitionist movement…” This single movement piece—which adds to the usual forces antique cymbals and chain as a reminder of slavery—is more accommodating of caustic dissonance than the Turnbull. This is done with intricacy and sensitivity, the strings moan and slide in Penderecki slaloming. As things progress across the single movement it develops a frenetic angular energy.

Martin Ellerby’s Epitaph VII: Memento (Terezin) is part of a series “reflecting atrocities associated with events related to World War II [with]…as its subject the Nazi concentration camp located at Terezin in the former Czechoslovakia.” The nine brief movements track through klezmer (Deportation Train and Closed Town), melancholy reflection familiar from Gorecki and Suk (Tears and The Silent Hunger), creepy despair (Forgotten) and touching moments of escape from reality (Butterfly and Olga). The Olga movement is plangent with a keenly nostalgic blade. Ellerby was a pupil of Joseph Horovitz at the Royal College of Music and later of Wilfred Josephs. There are eleven concertos and four symphonies which I now rather hope to hear. These days anything is possible.

Linda Merrick strikes me as a most sensitive player who seems also to take great care over minimising the sounds of the mechanical key actions of her instrument. The Navarra are a young ensemble who, on this evidence, are strong prospects for the future.

A varied anthology accommodating a variety of styles: tougher for Clarke and Roxburgh and with more melodic gravamen and accessible humanity in the case of Ellerby and Turnbull.

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