Elizabeth Maconchy is probably best known today for her remarkable set of thirteen string quartets. But another work of hers has recently appeared on an album of British clarinet concertos, and it very much shares the terse drama of her chamber music.
Rediscovered is a fascinating release from clarinetist Peter Cigleris, with the BBC NOW and conductor Ben Palmer. It brings together four clarinet rarities from the first half of the 20th century, including works by Susan Spain-Dunk, Rudolph Dolmetsch, and Peter Wishart. But Maconchy’s Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, from 1945, is in many ways a stylistic outlier on this disc.
This pithy, punchy drama is built from small motivic cells. Its three short movements are full of compelling intelligence, but there’s a hunched guardedness to this tightly-packed music too. It’s as if it’s afraid of stretching out too comfortably, and revealing a vulnerability.
The string writing here emphasises the darker low registers, and it’s not exactly full of sweet harmony. More often the orchestra stabs in furious unison, brow firmly furrowed. Her lines love the austere shapes of flattened intervals, the morbid tug of a minor second. But against all this, the piercing warmth of the clarinet makes for a fascinating foil – like a bright chalk highlight on a charcoal sketch. It’s particularly effective when she allows it to unfurl indulgently across its wide register.
At the beginning, the clarinet seems like a fly that the orchestra are trying to swat: it darts around on high above their short, pinching phrases. This soon gives way to one of Maconchy’s most characteristic passages. Few composers make their string writing creep so compellingly. Quiet, sinuous lines overlap with the suspense of a slowly emerging horror, like an ant’s nest waking up.
The second movement brings no light relief either. The strings start off in a sulk – short jerking phrases over a funeral beat. A desolate clarinet solo seems to toy indecisively between major and minor thirds. But when the strings gather strength in a tense climax, it flies into a series of high trills, a hunted animal turned frantic. Only when the music dies down does it finally come to rest on the bleaker minor thirds, panting soft and low.
The third movement is given a lift with a sprightlier triplet feel, and there are even folky touches in some leaping string figurations – perhaps a nod to Maconchy’s Irish roots. But the rhythms of jollity are soon hammered out of it, and the strings find a new source of unstable energy in a series of swelling chords.
For a while we veer between agitation and despondent slumps, but eventually, crunch time comes. Over a laser-focussed tremolo string note, the clarinet leaps up with several dramatic pleas, a last-ditch defendant in the dock.
The strings deliberate their response in a furiously condensed reprise of the movement’s themes. But the verdict, as it turns out, is one of surprise reprieve. In the final flourish, the clarinet reaches up high and finds that bright major third.
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