Every week, Classic FM presenter and music expert David Mellor reviews the best new releases and re-issues from the world of classical music.
Best Re-Issue: Gerald Finzi, By Footpath and Stile, Finzi Quartet etc, Resonus Classics
This Resonus album originally appeared in 2012, and is now reissued.
For me, the tragically short lived Gerald Finzi (he died of leukaemia aged only 55 in 1956) is one of the most engaging English pastoralist composers, with a distinct style that makes his music immediately recognisable.
This album, especially arranged for the Finzi Quartet, involves string quartet versions of some of Finzi’s most notable pieces, like the Five Bagatelles for clarinet (clarinettist Robert Plane), and the early Romance for strings.
Of particular interest to me, having just revisited Hardy’s birthplace in Dorset, is the song cycle ‘By Footpath and Stile’, for baritone, where six of Hardy’s poems are charmingly set by Finzi.
Finzi had a really sophisticated literary sense, not given to a composer like Elgar, who, much as I love him, set verse entirely unworthy of his genius.
At 73 minutes, this well recorded Resonus CD is worth acquiring.
KENDAL Town Hall may not be the Wigmore Hall but who needs the metropolis when we have the Kendal Midday Concert Club experience throughout the autumn and winter?
Another magnificent season ended with music making of the highest calibre from the Castalian Quartet in Haydn’s ‘Quinten’ String Quartet and then, joined by Robert Plane, in the wonderful Clarinet Quintet by Brahms.
Both these works come from late in their composers’ lives when their music had long achieved full maturity. Haydn had another decade to live during which time he wrote his finest settings of the Mass for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Brahms for his part believed his composing years were over until he heard the magnificent and inspiring playing of the clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld. Both composers lived through times of civil and military unrest and yet have left us a legacy of music which can even now take us beyond the tragedies and turmoils of life to somewhere sane, calm and reflective. This a packed house experienced to the full at the hands of these wonderful performers. Ever the witty and inventive composer Haydn, in this late quartet, displays these qualities to the full and the Castalians made the most of them.
Wonderful ensemble playing, lyrical first violin melodies supported by utterly sensitive lower parts, vigorously deft and energetic playing when required and an astonishing dynamic range characterised the first movement. After that the gentle balm of the second movement with its subtle use of rubato and strikingly accented chords came as a welcome contrast and led us gently into the vigorous canon of the Minuet and the fusion of all the quartet’s moods in the Finale. The total commitment of all four players was obvious throughout.
Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is one of the loveliest examples of the genre and when played as it was by Robert Plane and the Castalian Quartet is utterly beguiling. Immediately noticeable was the warmth of string tone so necessary and so characteristic of this music from a century later than the Haydn quartet. But here was no mini-clarinet concerto: the five instruments were totally integrated and played as one with great sympathy and shared emotion. Still, of course, the individual instrumental characteristics were evident: the warm tender suppleness of the string playing, rich cello and viola lower tones and elegiac violins set beside the liquid bubbling clarinet. This was especially evident in the lovely Adagio second movement.
The simultaneous contrast and closeness of major and minor keys was a feature of both works in this wonderful concert and it would be hard to think of a more fitting conclusion to a wonderful season of concerts taking place at a time of great tragedy and turmoil in the wider world than the closing bars of the Brahms quintet.
Here was music which must have made this audience, like Orsino, feel its ‘dying fall’ and wish for ‘excess of it’.
Thank you Robert Plane, the Castalians and KMCC for a rare experience!
Photo credit: Sara Porter
In Britain, though not in Norway, where he has been the chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic since 2015, Edward Gardner is best known as the former music director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera and English National Opera, and, most recently, the conductor of Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden. In his performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and in his supple accompaniment of Kian Soltani’s reading of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the pragmatism, sensitivity and ability to shape a long musical argument required of an opera conductor were keenly felt.
Soltani’s sweet, true sound, lyrical phrasing and deft delivery of Elgar’s declamatory statements and wry glissandi made this war-horse concerto coltish. There was fantasy, reflection and humour in his playing, attentively supported by Gardner, the LPO’s outstanding viola section …
… and the wistful beauty of Robert Plane’s clarinet solo.
A sensational double bill from pianist Alasdair Beatson with violinist Colin Scobie, cellist Philip Higham and clarinettist Robert Plane kicked off this year’s Music at Paxton festival. The first concert, an unusual selection of German chamber works, showcased the talents of each musician.
In his 12 variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Magic Flute Beethoven has fun with Papageno’s famous aria. Twinkly music box passages on the piano contrasted with the cello’s soulful articulation of the bird-catcher’s desire for a girl or a wife.
Beatson and Scobie beautifully captured the springy dotted rhythms and darker tonal shifts in Schubert’s Sonata in G minor while Beatson, Higham and Plane brought a Wagnerian muscularity to their lively and dramatic interpretation of Brahms Trio in A minor. The musicians got the balance between the instruments just right as they surfed the waves of this restless and ravishing music with aplomb.
The opulent surroundings in the picture gallery at Paxton couldn’t be further from the concentration camp where Messiaen composed and first performed Quartet for the End of Time.
There was much to savour in the ensemble’s second concert from the heart-wrenching wailing of the solo clarinet to the chime-like piano chords unsettling the more tranquil violin and cello harmonics.
There was little respite from these intense episodes unleashed with a controlled power by these fine musicians. They kept up the momentum right to the final note on the violin held high over the ebbing piano chords for what seemed like an eternity.
“The biggest cheers were undoubtedly heard for the world première of the Clarinet Concerto by Mark David Boden (born in 1986, and not to be confused with his near-homonym Mark Bowden born in 1979, who was at one time composer-in-residence for this same orchestra). Over the years I have expressed enjoyment and appreciation of Boden’s work, but this concerto surpassed anything that I might have expected. From the outset, it has a bubbling vitality and engagement that raised the spirits of the audience; and it went on doing this during four movements in a fast-fast-slow-fast pattern. Each of these movements had titles – Adrenaline, Isontonic, Threshold and Hypertension – and these might have conveyed to us an association with marathon running, even if the composer had not confirmed this is a pre-performance discussion with Steph Power.
Robert Plane, like the composer an enthusiastic marathon runner, threw himself into his athletic lines with glee and abandon, making light of the many high-flying passages which would have reduced many players to a squawking frenzy.
If he sometimes found himself subsumed into the melée of orchestral woodwind skirling about him, this was all part of the fun; and the relatively brief slow movement, where the lambent clarinet lines stretched themselves over a series of chorale-like passages from the strings, made an effective contrast. We certainly need to hear this concerto again, and often. I am sure that the general music public – at least those who appreciate the music of Prokofiev or even Malcolm Arnold – would take it to their hearts, given the opportunity.”
The whole concert was recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme at some unspecified future date. Those who were unable to get to the hall, and the many others listeners who enjoy new discoveries, should look out for the relay with eager anticipation. …
In his relationship with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Jac van Steen’s championing of a younger generation of Welsh composers is remarkable. His vigour and commitment constitutes its own advocacy. The new clarinet concerto by Mark David Boden (not to be confused with Mark Bowden, former BBC NOW composer-in-residence and member of the Camberwell Composers’ Collective) was written for the orchestra’s principal clarinettist Robert Plane.
By way of invoking common ground, Boden homed in on their shared passion for running in movements entitled Adrenaline, Isotonic, Threshold and Hypertension. Rather than elevated in aesthetic or philosophical terms, this was hyper-energetic, brimful with motor energy, with Plane’s tireless virtuosity speaking for itself.
Contrasts – Impressions of Hungary
Clarinettist Robert Plane was inspired to record this all-Hungarian programme by the discovery of a previously unheard 1949 trio by Tibor Serly called Chamber Folk Music. That title could apply to most of what’s here: the piquant harmonies and itchy rhythms of Hungarian folk music are never far away, and the performances are poised and idiomatic. It opens with Bartók’s Contrasts, written for Benny Goodman, and closes with the Brahmsian sweep of Ernő Dohnányi’s Sextet, taking in works by Rózsa, Kurtág and Weiner on the way.
Serly settled in New York aged 10 but returned to Hungary to study, and his trio reflects this: Gershwinesque episodes, first languid and then gently perky, frame a lament for clarinet and violin that looks longingly towards Budapest. It’s a little gem, and the light touch adopted by Plane together with violinist Lucy Gould and pianist Benjamin Frith is ideal.
“It was a pleasure to welcome the Sacconi Quartet and Robert Plane (clarinet) back to the Ilkley Concert Club for Wednesday’s concert. The programme began with a performance of Haydn’s D minor string quartet from op 76 which demonstrated clearly why this relatively young ensemble is so highly rated. …..”
“Robert Plane joined the quartet first for the Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet by York Bowen, a highly chromatic piece in a late romantic style. An audience which earlier in the season had heard Verklärte nacht might even have noted some similarities with early Schoenberg!”
“The rich chocolate tones of the bass clarinet contrasted with but never dominated the texture, showing what an excellent ensemble player Robert Plane is.”
“Even in the much more concerto-like Clarinet Quintet of Mozart which followed the interval, Plane remained a member of a chamber ensemble rather than a soloist. Playing a basset clarinet, for which the work was probably written, his virtuosity was never in doubt. He spun a wonderful limpid solo line through the slow movement but was content to become part of the accompaniment when that was called for. The Sacconi Quartet were excellent partners here as before, shining particularly in the first trio of the third movement.”
The enthusiastic applause was followed by a performance of Glazunov’s Oriental Reverie, a dream-like piece evoking all the exoticism which Russians from west of the Urals found in the souks of Samarkand!
“Robert Plane gives a very fine reading for Naxos, playing with the Northern Sinfonia, of which he was principal clarinet at the time. His playing is fluent and purposeful, with plenty of character; he is suitably indignant at the close of the first movement and displays an emphatic chalumeau register in the second. He shades dynamics with great sensitivity and the rondo is wonderfully good-natured” Gramophone Magazine
“In this performance of works [by Huw Watkins] spanning a decade, it was the most recent pieces that were conveyed with greatest expressivity and huge emotional intensity …… Speak Seven Seas for clarinet – played by Robert Plane, with Dukes on viola and Watkins on piano – had an apparently easy ebb and flow, but its dramatic tension was manipulated with the same unerring control.”
The concert, comprising performance of works by Huw Watkins spanning a decade, was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast on Hear and Now.
“Beethoven: Music in Revolution was the ambitious title given to this five-day festival, curated and performed by the Gould Piano Trio and friends. It offered an absorbing historical perspective on a composer who subverted rules, pushed boundaries and used shock tactics, as well as capturing his rigour and passion.”
“The Gould Trio’s recital of Op 1 No 3, and Op 11 with clarinettist Robert Plane, achieved a perfect balance of structural exactitude and lyricism. Pianist Benjamin Frith brought the same depth of understanding to a sequence of late Bagatelles and the Sonata Op 109. Frith shaped phrasing with Mozartean clarity while exploiting the drama of the music, in which Beethoven toys with expectation and surprise. On the following evening, Frith anchored a fine performance of the Op 16 Quintet, with the same wind players then gracing Beethoven’s Septet.”
“The delectable soloist, Robert Plane, must be smiling for joy at this unexpected addition to the (wonderful but small) clarinet quintet repertoire” International Record Review 2012 (Finzi Five Bagatelles)
“…stunningly intimate miniatures……Plane’s readings are superb, especially in the extended lyrical movements like the ‘Romance’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Forlana’.” Gramophone 2012 (Finzi Five Bagatelles)
“The performances do the music proud, not least the….soulful clarinet playing of Robert Plane….” Gramophone 2012 (Piers Hellawell ‘Agricolas’)
“With.. Robert Plane in the Clarinet Trio, Op 114, it was the mix of eloquently melodic sweep with precise details of texture and colouring that held the attention. It was all music-making of the highest calibre.” The Guardian 2011 (Brahms Festival, RWCMD, Cardiff)
“With such a starry line-up of players the high quality of these performances will surely come as no surprise…such rapt sensitivity and tonal allure” Classic FM magazine (Alwyn Chamber Music) 2010
“superb premiere….brilliantly exploits the technical resources of the two soloists, their streams of notes fizzing and cart-wheeling” The Times 2010 (Simon Holt ‘Centauromachy’)
‘The appeal of Greek mythology for such composers as Harrison Birtwistle and Simon Holt is apparently endless, and the centaur – half-man, half-horse – is the inspiration for Holt’s latest piece for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Further inspired by two of the orchestra’s star players, the clarinettist Robert Plane and the trumpeter Philippe Schartz, Holt has conceived Centauromachy as a double concerto, reflecting the dual nature of the centaur with all its ambiguities and sense of liminal being.”
“Holt’s masterstroke is to have Schartz play the flugelhorn, which has a more silky sound than the trumpet but is almost identical in range to the clarinet. There are moments when each instrument’s timbre seems to linger on the threshold of the other; together they blend into an altogether different sound quality, and yet can also contrast brilliantly. The magical and otherworldly effect befits the mythical creature”.
“The soloists’ interplay with the orchestra is characteristically intricate, and conductor François-Xavier Roth handled it with care. Plane and Schartz realised the virtuosity effortlessly, allowing the work’s core expressiveness and the feeling of an ultimately tortured super-being to vividly emerge.” Guardian 2010
“Centauromachy is dominated by the interplay of its solo instruments, sometimes trading extravagant roulades, sometimes interweaving delicate oscillations, always making intricate duo patterns that suggest a playful intellect much more than a bellicose temper. François-Xavier Roth conducted a highly persuasive performance, with brilliantly adept and just sufficiently theatrical playing by the two soloists.” ArtsDesk.com 2010
“Robert Plane is an eloquent and impassioned clarinettist. The playing is full-blooded and committed…” International Record Review 2010
“Anthony Marwood (leading from the first violin) and clarinettist Robert Plane showing a strength and depth of musical character” (Schubert Octet, Shannon International Festival) Irish Times 2008
“A fine work, in one continuous movement…it makes masterly use of the instrument’s wide register and variety of timbres. Plane’s interpretation of the composer’s long lyrical lines (in particular the central Andante), the climactic peaks, dramatic interjections and tender pianissimi are nothing short of exceptional in their careful grading; clearly, as his recording of Stanford’s chamber works for clarinet demonstrates, he has a special affinity for this music.” Gramophone, December 2008
“Hellawell has mastered the challenge of writing music that sounds familiar yet new, and he has a command of striking gesture. The strongest sense of trajectory was achieved in Degrees of Separation for strings. But better still was Agricolas , where the presence of Robert Plane as clarinet soloist provided the strongest sense of focus.” Irish Times (Piers Hellawell ‘Agricolas’ with RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland) Feb 2011
“I also liked Diana Burrell’s Birthday Candle, in which an array of tinkling percussion embellished Robert Plane’s dazzling clarinet cascades” The Times, Wigmore Hall, Mobius March 2008
“The sleek chamber group Mobius, drawn from orchestral principals, celebrated its 10th birthday last weekend with a Wigmore Hall concert .. ending with Mozart, a polished clarinet quintet. In between came seven specially commissioned new works, one for each member of the group, under the collective title of Birthday Candles. In Diana Burrell’s ‘Birthday Candle’, percussive special effects offset the bright, gymnastic warbling of Robert Plane’s clarinet.” The Observer, Wigmore Hall, Mobius March 2008
“Ravishing in tone and exploiting an excitingly wide dynamic range, Plane forges a commandingly articulate alliance with pianist Benjamin Frith. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine more sympathetic music-making.” Gramophone, November 2007
“Plane’s clarinet has an eloquent and expressive voice. He can be clownish, rude, barracking and sneering; he can weep, simper and smarm; he can joke, cackle and cheer. He can also produce whispered tone from nothing, bite the air with a chisel edge, roar low down like a didgeridoo or soar with the pure white sound of a cathedral treble.” The Times, August 2007
“..but the performance of the Finzi Clarinet Concerto which, for me, gets right to the heart is the excellent Robert Plane’s….sinuous and flexible.” Recommended Recording, Building a Library, BBC Radio 3 2006
“The performances are excellent, and Robert Plane is responsive to the shifting moods of the mature sonata…a programme to intrigue all Bax enthusiasts”
BBC Music Magazine 2006
“Robert Plane’s irreproachably alert and stylish account with Benjamin Frith leaves a delightlful impression. Plane’s timbre could hardly be more alluring and he strikes up a tangible rapport with Frith. Enthusiasts can rest assured that these admirably agile and idiomatic performers give Bax’s youthful inspiration every chance to shine; indeed, it’s impossible to imagine a more convincing account of the Trio”
“….splendid performances.This richly rewarding release completes the Gould’s admirable cycle on a high note. Full of lyrical outpouring, warm and varied tone, and perfect judgement of tempi, all these performances display an all too rare ability to combine in equal measure instrumental cohesion and expressive individuality. These are conversations, never debates…heart-warming and mind-nourishing celebrations of community-vividly characterised, very shrewdly built, while never sacrificing small-scale detail to large-scale structure, and grippingly communicative.”
Piano Magazine 2006
” ….the result is gorgeous, as here in the serene conclusion to the slow movement of the Clarinet Trio…exuding poise and elegance.”
CD Review BBC Radio 3 2006 (Brahms Clarinet Trio)
“The Clarinet Sonata, Howells’s last major chamber work was completed in 1946. The dedicatee was Frederick Thurston, and the wonderfully idiomatic 1980 recording by his wife and pupil Thea King has certainly stood the test of time. Robert Plane’s poetic account is possibly finer still, with its entrancing poise and liquid tone. Plane shines too in the coquettish miniature A Near-Minuet and sublime Rhapsodic Quintet.” Gramophone 2004
“Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with soloist Robert Plane provided a serene oasis.” The Guardian 2003 (Swansea Festival)
“Congratulations to Robert Plane (clarinet), Philip Dukes (viola) and Sophia Rahman (piano), who this month celebrate ten years of playing together as a trio. The sight of their names on a CD cover or concert programme always excites the highest expectations of imaginative and dedicated musicianship and, as usual, this disc entirely fulfils that promise.”London Evening Standard 2002 (Bruch Chamber Music)
“..a terrific account of the Weber Clarinet Quintet, dazzlingly dispatched by Robert Plane.” Gramophone 2000
“The clarinet plays a brilliant top line in Weber’s Clarinet Quintet op.34. He is a weightless funambulist dancing along the stave, leaping up the leger lines and attacking with a breathless whisper. His two octave leaps are the joy of his instrument, and his finger work in the loud-soft hemi-demi-semi quaver-plus ascents is witness to the hours of effort in a practice room which those who sell records by hype cut short.” London Evening Standard 2001 (EMI Debut CD)
“..the marvellous Plane Dukes Rahman Trio. In Schumann’s Marchenerzahlungen the trio showed a mastery of the Wigmore acoustics. The warm textures were honey rather than treacle, clarity provided by the piquant tone of Philip Dukes’s viola. Balance was perfect. The clarinet-piano Fantasiestucke and viola-piano Marchenbilder were enriched by the same intelligent, fluid articulation, confirming the rightness of this affectionate but unsentimental view of Schumann.” (Wigmore Hall) The Daily Telegraph 1998
“A highly accomplished, indeed commanding performance of Finzi’s gorgeous Clarinet Concerto from Robert Plane. With his bright, singing tone and effortless technical mastery, Plane leaves a stylish impression … We also get an atmospheric account of Lawrence Ashmore’s idiomatic orchestration of the Five Bagatelles (with poignant ‘Romance’ a highlight). All in all, another remarkable British music bargain from Naxos.” Gramophone 1998
“..clarinettist Robert Plane, a formidable young player who combines the charisma and virtuosity of a solo player with the ensemble skills of the orchestral musician.” BBC Music Magazine 1998 (Diana Burrell Concerto London Premiere, Barbican)
“Appropriately, the cover picture is of autumnal woodland. There is a mellowness to these late chamber works by Schumann, a partial reconciliation between the conflicting sides of his nature, though passion is far from spent. The playing here has a similar equilibrium: three fine musicians combining without losing their strong individual characters. Clarinettist Robert Plane’s long, dark sound is a good foil to Philip Dukes’s sharply focused viola tone, and pianist Sophia Rahman’s velvet touch and awareness of inner voices complete the picture.” Daily Telegraph 1998
“Northern Sinfonia’s excellent principal clarinettist, Robert Plane…an assured and persuasive account of the solo role.’ (Diana Burrell Concerto London premiere) The Times 1997
“The concerto was specially written for Robert Plane, whose outstanding musicianship fully justified the composer’s confidence; made clear in both her pre-concert talk, and in her probing of the technical and expressive limits of this finely crafted score…Chamber orchestras ought to be queuing up for a chance at this concerto with Plane.” The Musical Times 1996 (Diana Burrell Concerto premiere)
“Monday Morning’s Pittville Pump Room concert was a perfect advertisement for this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The Plane Dukes Rahman Trio were on top form, there was a friendly rapport between performers and audience, and the programme exemplified the thoughtful planning of the new artistic director, Michael Berkeley. The whole programme suggested that for these musicians, superb playing is the most natural thing in the world.” The Daily Telegraph 1995
“Prime among the first clutch of artists were the pianist Thomas Ades and the clarinettist Robert Plane. There is a distinct lyrical quality in his clarinet playing…Paul Max Edlin’s And From the Tempest a Myriad of Stars and Edward McGuire’s Soundweft both extend the clarinet-player’s technique, and Robert Plane was fully equal to the demands.”Daily Telegraph 1993 (Purcell Room London Debut, Park Lane Group)
“..the star quality of some of the performers. Two stood out from the rest-the cellist Paul Watkins and clarinettist Robert Plane. Plane’s unremitting stamina, tonal variety and gelling accuracy kept a large audience riveted.”The Guardian 1993 (Purcell Room, London Debut, Park Lane Group)
“Rare graciousness and impeccable style characterised Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in which Robert Plane’s tone had a beautifully homogenous quality. He gave the slow movement a quiet rapture, notably in the hushed reprise of the opening.” Yorkshire Post 1993
“..a young man with technique to spare and musicality to match…the slow movement contained one of those rare moments – the audience awed into silence, a velvety halo round the clarinet – in which time stood still.” The Yorkshire Evening Press 1993
International Record Review
Probably almost every clarinetist at some time or another comes upon one or other of these attractive and beautifully contrasted character pieces in their piano version, but Alexander has turned them into a five movement clarinet quintet!
The delectable soloist, Robert Plane, must be smiling for joy at this unexpected addition to the (wonderful but small) clarinet quintet repertoire.
There are, of course, numerous recordings in the catalogue of those Five Bagatelles in their original version with piano. Plane himself has previously recorded them for Naxos, in an arrangement for clarinet and string orchestra, rather than string quartet! Since the coupling there is his sensitive version of another Finzi masterwork in the shape of the Clarinet Concerto, devotees of the composer may well have that disc in their possession already.
… stunningly intimate miniatures … Plane’s readings are superb, especially in the extended lyrical movements like the ‘Romance’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Forlana’.
… the contribution of … Robert Plane … is first-class.