American composer and music teacher Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) during a class at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts, 1947. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

Copland, Nielsen, MacMillan: Clarinet concertos (Delphian)

Of all clarinet concertos, including Mozart’s, Aaron Copland’s is Norman Lebrecht’s favourite by a Siamese smile

Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week


The sound I miss most in our orchestral silence is the unexpected wail of a clarinet, in pain or pleasure like a cat in coitus, at the moment a symphony seems to be drifting towards the intermission. No way is the clarinet going to let this music end without a howl.

Of all clarinet concertos, and I include Mozart’s, Aaron Copland’s is my favourite by a Siamese smile. Grifted from a dying cadence in Mahler’s ninth symphony, it meanders down the back-lots of Hollywood through some jazz riffs and pony clops to an upbeat, slightly phony all-American fadeout. That’s all, folks.

Carl Nielsen’s concerto, austere as a Danish Easter, is often said to be more fun for players than for listeners. Myself, I’m happy to spend half an hour in its ethereal vistas. The great Dane never wastes a bar of music. He can be a bit preachy but the craftsmanship is a wonder to behold and the mind behind it is absorbing, especially in the slower stretches.

I’ve never heard Tuireadh by James MacMillan in concert and it’s an omission I want to repair once these things become possible again. The Scots composer, deeply affected by a 1988 accident on a North Sea oilrig that claimed 167 lives, wrote the concerto as a kind of keening for the lost souls and their loved ones. He captures both an indigenous Caledonian tone and an off-the-note sonority peculiar to the clarinet. Simply put, it’s a Scottish Kaddish.

What I like most about this release is the playing of the Spanish soloist Maximiliano Martin, principal clarinet of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, an artist of great experience who has so much more to say in these pieces than the general run of record fodder. In the gloom of maritime disaster, he offers glints of hope. The orchestra is pretty good, too. It’s from Tenerife, conductor Lucas Macias Navarro.

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