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February 24, 2011

Clarinet Dreams: Lucy Downer’s debut album Conversations

by quaesitor

CONVERSATIONS
Lucy Downer, Clarinet
Claire Howard Race, Piano

Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Clarinet & Piano Sonata Op. 167

Allegretto
Allegro animato
Lento
Molto Allegro

Debussy (1862-1918): Première Rhapsodie

Planas (1959- ): Spanish Rhapsody for solo bass clarinet

Müller (1786-1854) / Rossini (1792-1868): Fantasia on Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Patterson (1947- ): Conversations Op.25,

Allegro deciso
Adagio
Presto

One challenge any performer faces is the programme question. Each will come up with different solutions, but commonly, people go for a particular period, or a retrospective of a composer’s life, or perhaps trace a theme across different styles. Whatever decisions are made, though, it is always fascinating to see what juxtapositions are offered.

A superb clarinettist at All Souls, Lucy Downer, has just produced her debut album Conversations, accompanied by a fellow Royal Academy graduate Claire Howard Race. And it is a triumph – and I’m not just saying that because she’s a friend! Crisply recorded and beautifully produced, this is a wonderful collection. And the programme is as intriguing as it is captivating. These pieces enable her to show off the breadth and depth of her instrument while introducing some less well known works.

She opens with a repertoire standard: the utterly beguiling sonata by Saint-Saëns. It is beautifully, almost effortlessly, played – and evokes a huge range of emotions over the course of its 4 movements. Energy, frustration, effort, exuberance, reverie, nostalgia, and even regret. One of my favourite sonatas ever, it is a remarkable legacy, almost a last will and testament of a man who (unbeknownst to him) had only months left to live. Lucy’s rendition captures it all – the only thing missing to my mind was a glass of crisp, chilled white while overlooking the Dordogne. Perhaps this can be arranged…

The Debussy Rhapsodie seems to function as the programme’s bridge to modernity. Even though the composer died before Saint-Saëns, they inhabited utterly different musical worlds, with Debussy painting musical impressions without the constraints of classical structure. We can hear the seeds of the 20th Century in Debussy, in a way that we simply don’t in Saint-Saëns. Nevertheless, the pieces do have common characteristics – they are both lyrical, French reveries. And they sit very well together on this disc – Lucy and Claire give a sense of musical development while sustaining the emotional intensity.

Nick Planas is a contemporary composer and Spanish Rhapsody is a piece especially composed for Lucy. It is worth quoting his own sleeve notes:

Having seen Lucy performing a variety of different pieces on the bass clarinet, I was inspired to compose this short piece especially for her to add to her repertoire.

My intention with this Spanish rhapsody was to create a piece which would offer some technical challenges for the player, whilst providing the opportunity for great tonal variety across almost the complete range of the bass clarinet, one of my favourite instruments. At the same time I wanted to maintain a clear tonal melodic outline, and having just completed another work which contained several notably Spanish songs and dances, I decided to pay homage to the Spanish style which has influenced quite a lot of my music to date, perhaps because of my Spanish ancestral roots (Nick Planas, 2009)

I really enjoyed this. I’m not aware of much repertoire for the bass clarinet at all – but it has the most wonderfully mellow and rich tone, as well as an amazingly huge range. The piece is at times haunting, melancholic and reflective, but interspersed suddenly bursts of frenetic energy. It definitely has a Spanish lilt to it (evoking the similarly titled works by Liszt, Bizet and Ravel). It perhaps won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, initially. But its strangeness is itself a reason to give it time.

Lucy & (a rather obscured) Claire in action in a house concert at our home last year

No sooner has this Iberian reverie trailed away, than we are transported to a classical era soiree, with Müller‘s arrangement of a Rossini aria. I knew nothing about him before – but it seems that he was an instrument inventor of note who made substantial improvements to the clarinet. The Fantasia is played with a great joie de vivre. But again, there is another sudden departure. Before we’ve had time to acclimatise to the somewhat refined atmosphere of a central European music room, we’re rudely awakened by the album’s title piece – Paul Patterson‘s Conversations, written in 1974. It explodes into life, vigorous, alarming even. It’s title is revealing and indicates an equal importance between the piano and clarinet. They constantly respond to each other’s statements, in fact they almost vie with each other. The final Presto is jazzy, dazzling, and demanding – providing a wonderfully energetic climax to the whole performance (with perhaps the slightest nod to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the end?).

But the section I particularly liked was the middle slow movement. This too is a dream – and it was as I was listening to this that the album’s programme clicked into place. It is an anthology of dreams, nostalgias, rhapsodies. Even Saint-Saëns sonata falls into this category, despite following all the old strict rules of classical sonata form (which, in the wrong hands, can be stultifyingly academic and earth-bound). The clarinet has such unique power to transport. My son Joshua, who has recently done is Clarinet Grade 5, recently said that the clarinet was obviously the best instrument to play – and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree (probably because it’s not my instrument!), it does have the ability to lift one out of the everyday and mundane. Of course the danger of dreams is that they are divorced from reality. But at their best, they can help us make sense of life, even make it more liveable.

Lucy’s playing is a wonderful example of this – it expresses so many of life’s emotional realities – and so hers is a disc that I cannot but recommend (even to those who are not classically inclined). Get it either as a download or CD.

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