My Valentine Weekend continues today with an intimate survey by Gavin Higgins of a failed relationship, his Three Broken Love Songs, for basset clarinet and piano. Composed in 2006 for the clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, the work falls into three movements, bearing demonstrably blunt titles. ‘…Two bottles of wine later…’ takes as its starting point the soaring opening glissando from Rhapsody in Blue (which, coincidentally, was premièred just over 90 years ago), but sidesteps Gershwin’s dancing airiness in favour of material that initially broods and swoops. Glissandi colour the clarinet’s melodic intentions repeatedly, indicative of an ongoing process of aural inebriation that culminates—responding to a heavy sequence of piano pounding—in a series of ecstatic shrieks. A climax indeed.
‘Three’s a crowd’ maintains the proximity between the players, now light and staccato, closely following each other’s movements and syncopations. However, the clarinet’s tone is jumpy and fretful, never allowing itself to settle; a new approach, beginning low and slow, gradually rising and accelerating, ends up at a pinnacle that’s both forceful and forced—the relationship between the players feels strained—and the coda finds both players practically walking on eggshells. Theatre is left to one side in the closing movement, ‘Love Hurts’, clarinet and piano united in a rich, heartfelt effusion, lamenting, imploring, wistful and wounded. By retreating to more conventional language, Higgins here makes the music achingly personal, unaffected by too much overt compositional intervention. Recurring piano asides taint the harmonic stasis, adding extra poignancy to the movement’s bruised beauty.
There’s a great deal of uneasy truth to be heard in Three Broken Love Songs and this fine, measured performance, given at the Wigmore Hall last December by dedicatee Mark Simpson with Richard Uttley on piano, brings it all to the surface and lays it bare.