Hawkins’ Music for Clarinet

Hawkins001

SIMPLICIUS / HAWKINS: Simplicius Simplicissimus.1 The Dong With a Luminous Nose.2 In Touch.3,4 Clarinet Sonata.4 Clarinet Concerto1 / Steve Dummer, cl; 2Aidan Smith, bs-bar; 3Ivana Peranic, cel; 4Yoko Ono, pno; 1Stane Street Sinfonietta; Holly Mathieson, cond / Claudio Contemporary CC6045-2

John Hawkins (b. 1949), a friend of composer Barry Mills whose music I liked, sent me this CD for potential review. The very opening of Simplicius Simplicissimus sounded like ambient classical to me, but in short order the harmonies became more modern and interesting and, before long, the tempo increased and things got very intriguing indeed. Like his friend Mills, Hawkins has a fine sense of construction; unlike Mills, some of his music moves at very fast tempi indeed. He certainly learned his composition lessons well from Elisabeth Luytens and Malcolm Williamson. The piece continues to develop using those two basic building blocks, the slow opening and the faster, edgier orchestral playing—and at 6:34, it surely does not overstay its welcome.

Edward Lear, mostly known for his nonsense lyrics, contributed the words to The Dong With a Luminous Nose, in which he playfully conceals some real feelings about love, loneliness and loss. Bass-baritone Aidan Smith has a fine tone and exceptionally clear diction despite an infirm unsteadiness of sustained tones. And yet once again, I found myself fascinated by Hawkins’ writing—so clearly laid out, and so well suited rhythmically to the meter of the poem. He has the clarinet play soft low notes, low trills and occasional upward glissandi to indicate the length of the Dong’s “plaintive pipe.”

The trio In Touch has a nice, ruminative feel to the music, the first movement of which always seems to be exploring and never quite coming to a conclusion. The second movement is very slow-moving, and here Hawkins does indeed resolve his harmony though the piano part uses unusual chord positions to keep things in flux at times. The third movement seems to combine elements of the first two: there is restlessness, yet also moments in which the music feels settled only to start probing once more. All of the performers here are excellent. In the Clarinet Sonata, Hawkins sets up uneasy rhythmic figures in the piano part over which the clarinet plays lyrically; occasionally the piano joins him in this lyricism, yet always seems to play chords that have no tonic. Again, a bit of resolution comes in the slow movement, following which the third movement moves along at a quick but interrupted pace, with unusual piano arpeggios behind the clarinet.

In the final work, the clarinet concerto, we hear yet another plaintive melody starts the proceedings, after which the string orchestra enters playing a surprisingly tonal melodic line. This, however, again moves into more unsettled harmonic territory, although again Hawkins’ excellent feeling for structure keeps everything in perfect balance. Suddenly, the music becomes louder and rather faster for a while, then settles back into a slow, ruminative cadenza for the soloist. Hawkins varies the meter in the second movement, keeping the listener attentive for all the little subtleties he puts into the music. The third movement is the most interesting, using low plucked bass notes to both set the mood and propel the music from below as the upper strings and clarinet take turns adding their own ideas to the score. The violas play gently rocking figures beneath the soloist, then later both clarinet and orchestra take opposing rhythms to keep them separate for a few bars rather than merging, which they do in the end.

This is a very interesting CD, well worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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