thu 20/06/2024

Hutchings, Britten Sinfonia, Paterson, Barbican online review – saluting an American classic | reviews, news & interviews

Hutchings, Britten Sinfonia, Paterson, Barbican online review – saluting an American classic

Hutchings, Britten Sinfonia, Paterson, Barbican online review – saluting an American classic

Clarinet works by Copland and Stravinsky take centre stage at EFG London Jazz Festival

Bathing the soloist in a warm glow: Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and PianoAll images by Mark Allan

When Aaron Copland wrote his most beloved work, Appalachian Spring, in 1943/44, he gave it the unfussy working title of “Ballet for Martha” – Martha being the choreographer Martha Graham, for whom he’d written the score. It was only shortly before the premiere, long after the ink was dry on the score, that Graham appended the more alluring title, excerpted from Hart Crane’s poem "The Dance", by which the work is now known.

At a birthday concert held in his honour at the Library of Congress in 1981, the composer noted with amusement how, due to the oft-repeated scenario of people telling him how well he had captured the beauty of the Appalachians in the score, he had “begun to see the Appalachians myself a little bit”.

Scheduled as part of the Barbican’s Live from the Barbican series, as evidenced by last night’s performance by the Britten Sinfonia – in its original scoring for an ensemble of 13 instruments – what is incontrovertible is the communicative power of Copland’s music. Expertly conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, and brilliantly led by violinist Thomas Gould, the scintillating, edge-of-your-seat playing would surely convince even the most immovable naysayer that this was Copland’s finest score, vibrating as it does between a contemplative immobility and a compelling rhythmic drive (Britten Sinfonia pictured below).Britten SinfoniaWhether it was the rapt introduction, the overlapping tonic and dominant chords from which so much of the work’s material springs, the exhilarating cut to the Allegro section with unison strings in a sparkling A major (some minor infelicities of tuning here), the subtle mixing of major and minor modes, the impeccably observed dynamics or the touching variations on the Shaker melody "Simple Gifts", this was a performance which reflected the words of Pearl Lange, one of the dancers in Martha Graham’s original production: “The first day we heard this music, it was like the sun spread over the floor.”

One of the prime movers in the UK’s flourishing jazz scene, clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors) took to the Barbican stage to perform Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, composed in 1919. Hutchings shaped the first movement’s metrical asymmetry with great care, its liberal use of acciaccaturas and chromatic descending motif at times recalling the introduction of The Rite of Spring. Written entirely without bar lines or time signature, Hutchings made an impressive fist of the rapid-fire arpeggios and vertiginous registral leaps of the second movement, although the very opening phrase suggested that the notes weren’t entirely secure under his fingers. With its overt nods to the ‘Ragtime’ from The Soldier’s Tale, Hutchings handled the constant metrical shifts and breathlessness of the third movement with real conviction.

The six-minute clarinet improvisation which followed featured an extraordinary central section consisting of one unbroken melodic arc – with Hutchings, through the use of circular breathing, sustaining a single phrase for three minutes which at times created the impression of two-part counterpoint. The applause from the Britten Sinfonia players at its conclusion seemed entirely spontaneous (Shabaka Hutchings pictured below).Shabaka HutchingsWe have the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, to thank for the existence of Copland’s remarkable Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano, which he completed in 1948. It’s one of several noteworthy twentieth century works – including Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano, plus concertos by Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith – which the great jazz clarinettist commissioned. Long established as a key work in the twentieth-century clarinet repertoire, it’s extraordinary to note the review of the work’s first public performance, with Ralph McLane the soloist, published in Musical America, which called it “second-rate Copland … thematically nondescript and rhythmically lifeless”.

Cast in two movements connected by an extended cadenza, Hutchings and the Britten Sinfonia captured the 3/4 lilt of the opening movement, its absolute clarity of construction, and its profound melodicism to perfection, with the homogeneity of the string textures bathing the soloist in a warm glow.

Rather than recapitulating material heard in the first movement, the cadenza introduced themes which would be explored in the rhythmically charged second movement, the motoric rhythms of which sounded like the inner workings of some giant clock – with the addition of the exceptional pianist Catherine Edwards creating an even greater percussive bite. Despite some wobbly moments in the solo part during the faster passagework at the extremes of the clarinet’s register, the urgency of the pulse was undeniable, with the movement’s free rondo form referencing everything from Charleston rhythms to Brazilian folk song, all brought to a dramatic close by the soloist’s final glissando – a loving nod to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.


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