This is the background to Gemini's latest recording project
culminating in a CD entitled
' 'for clarinet and strings'
to be released in June 2021
Why for clarinet and strings? Well, obviously the content is works for that mix of instruments. However, the project actually emerged from recordings made in 1995. Gemini had been a prize winner in the 1993 Prudential Awards for the Arts. We decided to use the money to record various works. It proved to be a challenge to find a record company to take the mixed repertoire. A single composer CD was generally the norm ─ easy to find on the alphabetically arranged shelves and in catalogues. So the tapes gathered dusted on my shelves, apart from Nicola LeFanu’s splendid clarinet quintet Invisible Places which in 2017 found an outlet on our disc of music by her and David Lumsdaine (Mandala 3 on Divine Art msv28565). There were three major works languishing: by Cyril Scott, Rebecca Clarke and Howard Skempton. Wanting to put them before the public I hit on the idea of the Scott and Clarke being the basis of a disc of works for clarinet and strings. (More of the Skempton later). Nicola had written a work for clarinet and string trio to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Gemini’s foundation under Peter Wiegold. Here were three characterful and very different works to form a strong foundation for a programme. I then decided to seek a new work to complement the Clarke duo for clarinet and viola to add to the scarce repertoire for the duo. I was keen to continue a long-standing relationship between Sadie Harrison and Gemini knowing she would have an individual take on the ensemble. Indeed, she did in a most exciting way. Originally clapsticks and narration were to be played by the two performers, but the practicality of holding an instrument, narrating, and striking clapsticks somehow became trickier as compositional ideas expanded. So two further members of the ensemble were drafted in. They took up the challenge with more than a little relish adding a touch of exoticism to the clarinet and strings brief for the disc.
The duo concept led me to another long-standing friend of the ensemble, to Howard Skempton whose lovely Lullaby for clarinet and cello we had recorded for cassette many years ago. That in turn led me to thinking of Howard’s splendid Gemini Dances the other major work recorded in 1995. The line-up definitely expanded on the disc’s title, adding flute, percussion and piano, but I have long wanted people to be aware of the piece: to listen to and to perform. So moving on from the CD I asked Stephen Sutton of Divine Art if he would consider releasing it as a stand-alone download. He thought this wouldn’t have the impact we wanted and said why not add it to the disc as a bonus track. Why not? A terrific idea. Last but not least the little gem from Tony Coe had been on my mind ever since Tony first told me in 2006 that he’d expanded my commission on behalf of the ABRSM for a tiny clarinet and piano piece. He rescored it for clarinet and string quartet and added two further miniature movements. It’s a perfect encore to end a quintet concert.
This project was never intended to profile the clarinet, rather simply to have ensembles including both clarinet and string instruments. Only once does the clarinet actually take centre stage ─ for the short opening movement of Nicola’s quartet. At times, the focus can be very much on a string instrument as in Lullaby and the Scott quintet is most definitely an ensemble of equals. Rebecca Clarke and Sadie Harrison integrate the two instruments in totally different ways, both achieving a remarkable range of colours in doing so. Indeed, it is the richness of the palette across this varied collection of pieces that I find so enjoyable rather than any unifying theme.
This is the Foreword to the CD Homage - chamber music by Philip Grange
by Gemini's Director, Ian Mitchell
Gemini and Philip Grange have had an association going back nearly 30 years from the early 1990s developing more closely when Grange and I were both on the staff at the University of Exeter, from the mid-1990s, and where Gemini became Ensemble-in-Association for eleven years. The association has included three commissions: Des fins sont des commencements (1994) written for a national tour to mark the 60th birthday of Grange’s teacher and close friend, Peter Maxwell Davies; A Puzzle of Shadows (1997) and Shifting Thresholds originally discussed in the early two thousands, which came to fruition when both the composer and I had space for it, spurred on by Gemini’s desire to mark Grange’s 60th birthday in 2016. We have also recorded two CDs of his chamber music before this one: Dark Labyrinths released by Black Box in 2000 and Darkness Visible in 2006 on the Metier label. Both were a Critic’s Choice of the Year in Gramophone magazine. In addition, Gemini has given around thirty performances of various works, toured the UK and, memorably, Taiwan with the composer. So, it was with enormous pleasure that I said yes when Philip said he would like to record Shifting Thresholds – the major chamber work of just over 30 minutes in length that he wrote for Gemini to premiere in his 60th birthday concert at the University of Manchester in December 2016.
It is a fascinating work that includes elements new to his compositional palette, and perhaps surprising for others to discover. The work is inspired by Samuel Becket’s extraordinary novel Malone Dies and, as I have written elsewhere, familiarity with the score shows things absorbed: passing moments of absolute stillness found in Beckett and in music by Morton Feldman, a close friend of Beckett; there often appears to be less of a sense of narrative driving the music forward in a typical Grange way, and more of a Beckettian reflective exploration of material in different contexts or from different angles, sometimes as if half forgotten, perhaps – at times the music revolving more than marching onwards towards a goal. Indeed, there is in essence no goal, the music apparently heading to a climax only to distort and fall apart, struggling to continue and finally expiring … There are also some novel (for Grange) instrumental techniques used in passing such as multiphonics for the bass clarinet (multiple sounds produced simultaneously), and quarter tones for strings.
All four works on the disc pay homage not just in name, but more deeply through Grange exploring and assimilating elements of each artist’s work, shining his own light on them by absorbing these elements into his own language.
As ever with Phil, it was a highly stimulating project to work on, the fruits of which we are pleased and eager to share widely.