Five Klee Pictures
Clarinet Concerto No.2 in E flat, Op.74
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Alison Downie (clarinet)
Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 7 July, 2007
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London
Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Five Klee Pictures in 1960 during his first year as Head of Music at Cirencester Grammar School. The score is vital and tuneful, nodding towards the modern. The Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra attacked these short pieces with gusto, appreciating their vitality, quirkiness and humour. “The Crusader” gave a rousing spotlight to the side drum; quietly, clarinets and oboes depicted an “Oriental Garden”; then, the full orchestra rose to a manic furore for “Twittering Machine” and became twittering birds outside the “Stained Glass Window” before rising to a raucous climax for “Ad Parnassum”, which included Frank Burgum’s solo trumpet.
Alison Downie, the orchestra’s principal clarinettist since 1992, gave a rousing solo performance in Weber’s Concerto. She announced her vigorous, no-holds-barred performance by her very looks – strands of hair, blond and abundant, leapt like flames, while her stance was steady and sure. The very first notes – hard, authoritative and dark – let us know that we were in for a compelling trip. There was to be nothing of the smooth, character-less playing so often purveyed in these days of bland perfection. Downie’s playing had spirit and authority, a dynamic pulse. She took risks. Her melodies sang with untamed lilt; her arpeggios swirled with bravura; her virtuoso flights blazed with aplomb. Sure, she fluffed a few notes. Her blips were beneath notice – incapable of gainsaying the realised splendour of her ambition. The orchestra accompanied in kind, with alert, springy rhythms and shimmering sounds.
Brahms 3 is a tricky beast. (Sibelius 3 is another.) The first movement can sound pompous and dull; the slow movement can drag; the Allegretto can become andante, giving us two slow movements; changes and turnabouts in the finale can make no sense.
Jonathan Butcher went for a brisk pace overall. The first movement surged ahead – clearly, Brahms was out for an energetic walk. The second movement flowed attractively. Here, Brahms was as if communing with a river’s motion. (Play it any slower and the music rumbles as if digesting a heavy meal.) The Allegretto lost out. It had the merit of engaging simplicity, to which the orchestra responded gravely and gently. A tripping gait let the movement pass – but too smoothly. There was no bloom. The melodies had no wistful melancholy. The judiciously paced finale was a triumph. This is particularly where many performances come to grief. Butcher opened with a considered Allegro – plenty of brio but nothing hectic. This sensible pace allowed to orchestra, moments later, to express the surge of energy as a burst of real power. Furthermore, only slight adjustment of tempo was required to effect the tempo shift to the more tranquil rumination later on. The changes were cleverly thought out and colourfully responded to – enabling the concert to finish with a quietening cessation of activity.