Monday 23 November 2015

Very fine works for strings by Nigel Clarke played phenomenally well by the string ensemble Longbow directed by violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved on a new Toccata Classics release

Nigel Clarke studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, UK with Paul Patterson, winning the Josiah Parker Prize and the Academy’s highest distinction, the Queen’s Commendation for Excellence. He gained his Doctor of Musical Arts from University of Salford, UK. Clarke was co-nominated in 2006 World Soundtrack Awards in the `Discovery of the Year' category.

He has previously held positions as Young Composer in Residence at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts; Composition and Contemporary Music Tutor at the Royal Academy of Music, London; Head of Composition at the London College of Music and Media; visiting tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music; Associate Composer to the Black Dyke Band; Associate Composer to the Band of HM Grenadier Guards; Associate Composer to the Royal Military School of Music; Associate Composer to Brass Band Buizingen in Belgium and Composer-in-Residence to the Marinierskapel der Koninklijke Marine (Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy). In 1997 Nigel joined the United States International Visitor Leadership Program sponsored by the US Information Agency. He is currently Visiting Composer to Middle Tennessee State University Bands.

Whilst there has naturally been an emphasis on music for brass and wind bands, Clarke’s compositional output is varied including orchestral works, concertos for violin, clarinet and euphonium, chamber works and piano works as well as music for films.

It is his Music for Thirteen Solo Strings that feature on a new release from Toccata Classics with the string ensemble Longbow directed by violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved who are joined by Sébastian Rousseau (flugel horn) and Malene Sheppard Skærved (speaker).

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Parnassus for Thirteen Solo Strings (1986-87) was written for the ensemble Parnassus founded by Peter Sheppard Skӕrved and was premiered at the Purcell Room, London, UK in 1988.

It leaps into action with a flurry of dissonant strings before a brief pizzicato section. A passage for sonorous lower strings soon arrives over which the upper strings bring a terrific edgy swirl of sound. The music builds in intensity before falling to a quieter section with pinpoints of texture and more swirling string sounds. Clarke creates some marvellous string sounds as the music moves through quieter moments of delicate pizzicato strings and anxious lower strings over which higher strings bring light fleeting textures. Later the basses lead forward in a slower section to which other strings slowly add some absolutely lovely textures. There are slowly drawn light high sounds, exquisitely done with some lovely little details as the high strings conjure strange little motifs. Clarke slowly develops the textures, increasing subtly in dynamics until reaching a flurry of swirling strings in a tremendous moment before the music curls in on itself for the hushed coda with lovely little string phrases.

This is a very attractive work that receives a very fine performance here.

The Scarlet Flower for Flugal Horn and Thirteen Solo Strings (2014) was written as a memorial for Edith Cavell with the solo part acting as the voice of Cavell.

The flugal horn opens with a bright and buoyant theme that moves around cadenza like displaying some tremendous solo playing before the strings enter alone to develop the theme with some fine textures. The flugal horn re-joins as the music soon falls quiet as the opening theme is developed, pointed up by string accompaniment. The music leads through passages that are a test for any brass player with some terrific playing from Sébastian Rousseau. Later there is a hushed section for strings and muted flugal horn providing some lovely subtle touches. The soloist rises over the hushed strings as he leads into a mellow flowing section for livelier strings.  Eventually the soloist rises out of a softer, slower string passage for a fast, wonderfully played section. There is a short section with a rather romantic feel before the music becomes livelier leading to a lovely section for hovering strings over which a gentle melody is played. The music falls to a hush before, after a sudden pizzicato outburst, the music fades.

Nigel Clarke writes in his CD booklet note of the importance of collaboration. With the next work, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight for Speaker, Thirteen Solo Strings and Sound Design (2012-14) that is especially true. Writer and poet Malene Sheppard Skærved has provided the text for this work and is the speaker on this recording. It is performed by Longbow whose artistic directors are Peter Sheppard Skærved and Nigel Clarke.

It was commissioned from Nigel Clarke and Malene Sheppard Skærved by Dover Arts Development as part of their War and Peace project, exploring Dover’s history and including recorded sounds from Dover beach.

The work opens with the speaker, Malene Sheppard Skærved reciting the words ‘Dābras Dubris – waters – Dufras Douvres Cinque Ports – Dover Sandwich Hastings Romney and Hythe Dour River ‘There is something special in the waters…’.’ Around eight minutes in, seagulls are briefly heard behind the speaker as she reaches the words ‘Captain Webb (an English gentleman) used breast stroke…’. Soon there are sounds of water trickling out of which waves and strings are gently heard as the narration concludes leaving just the waves crashing onto shingle.  Gulls, then strings and the sounds of water lead forward as a gently undulating melody is heard that perfectly takes the atmosphere of the preceding text. Here Clarke brings some lovely string sonorities and phrases, so much appearing out of the texture in this fine string writing. The most exquisitely shaped phrases are conjured out of the texture by individual instruments before both the textures and tempo become ever more complex and impassioned. There is playing of superb virtuosity through which a longer theme can be heard. Eventually the music falls to a quiet, static section out of which a little violin motif appears that soon flourishes. Basses rise, up through the other strings as the seagulls and waves return with quiet static strings phrases. The strings fade leaving the waves and sounds of water to lead very slowly to the coda.  

This is a very fine work which perhaps will only be prevented from having future performances due to the length of the unaccompanied text. This would be a great pity given the great beauties that lie within.

Pulp and Rags for Thirteen Solo Strings (2012-15) again arose from the War and Peace project. The work takes its inspiration from the old, now closed, Buckland Paper Mill near Dover particularly in its rhythms, sonorities and fingerboard slaps.

Rhythmic fingerboard slaps and hushed vocal sounds open before pizzicato descending string phrases slowly take over and shards of sound from the strings can be heard. This is terrific pizzicato string writing and playing, bringing such variety and forward propulsion, occasionally pointed up by fingerboard slaps.  The music falls quiet before a faster, furious swirling theme appears leading to passages of softer whirling string phrases as the music dances and moves around at a pace. There are passages of rhythmically leaping and buoyant strings before fingerboard returns and the strings quieten. Hushed vocal sounds are heard before a final quiet string chord.

This a terrific work that no string orchestra should ignore when planning a concert

Epitaph for Edith Cavell for solo violin (2015) is a reworking for muted violin of the flugal horn solo that opens The Scarlet Flower. It was first performed at the National portrait Gallery, London, UK in 2015.

Peter Sheppard Skærved weaves some very fine textures as he takes this piece forward, a rather plaintive melody that, nevertheless, has a textural strength. It travels through some beautifully controlled, quieter passages before the hushed coda is reached. This is a particularly lovely and moving work.

This new release contains some very fine works for strings played phenomenally well by these players. As a string player himself Peter Sheppard Skærved extracts the very best form his players. They receive a first rate recording and there are excellent notes from Nigel Clarke and Peter Sheppard Skærved.

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