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English Cello Sonatas: Première Recordings
John FOULDS (1880-1939)

Sonata for cello and piano, Op.6 (1905, rev. 1927)
Ernest WALKER (1870-1949)

Sonata in F minor for cello and piano, Op.41 (1914)
York BOWEN (1884-1961)

Sonata in A major for cello and piano, Op.64 (1921)
Jo Cole (cello)
John Talbot (piano)
Rec. Bishopsgate Hall, London, 25 Oct, 29 Nov, 6 Dec 1997. DDD
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS423CD [81.10]

 

A few months ago a young cellist stated on the radio how few works there were for the cello. As a devotee of the cello repertoire I know this to be untrue as,according to my researches,I have listed well in excess of a hundred substantial works by well known composers; more than enough for any performer’s portfolio. Maybe, when compared to the violin repertoire, the number of works for the cello do take a back seat but there is clearly something there for all tastes. A young cellist could do worse than listen to and study these cello sonatas by the three relatively unknown English composers: Foulds, Walker and Bowen. These rarely played compositions, all of which are receiving their premier recordings, prove to be interesting and satisfying works and are most welcome additions to the cello repertoire.

The first work on this BMS release is the inventive and melodic cello sonata from John Foulds, which he conceived as early as 1905. Foulds was a professional cellist and aged 20 became a player with the Hallé Orchestra. Owing to his connections in the music world Foulds could boast meetings with the eminent composers Busoni, Mahler, Strauss, Delius, Bartók and Humperdinck. The cello sonata is said to have a high reputation which is not borne out by the small number of performances it has received. In fact, music writer Malcolm MacDonald classed this work as one of the finest, if not the finest, cello sonata by an English composer. In my view the Foulds sonata does contain some very fine moments especially in the lyrical second movement Lento but is inconsistent in quality and is certainly not in the same league as the sonatas by Delius, Ireland, Moeran and Bridge, for example. The Lento is a fascinating movement where Foulds displays his earliest use of quartet tones. To be frank Foulds’ invention took me by surprise as I momentarily thought that the cellist was tuning-up at my first hearing of the work.

Ernest Walker, a pianist and organist worked for the majority of this life as a music educator and author at Oxford's Balliol College and is a name that I am unfamiliar with. I found the cello sonata pleasant, extremely interesting and emotionally restrained but rather disappointing overall. This contrasts with Ivor Keys’view in The New Grove who stated: "The cello sonata combines passion and harmonic adventure." I did enjoy the central slow movement Adagio where Walker achieves some moments of real calm and serenity. The mood is predominately lyrical and rhapsodic but without that telling melodic expression and I feel that the work will continue to struggle for performances.

York Bowen can do no wrong for me at the moment and I am consistently impressed by the quality of his compositions that have finally made it to the recording studio. This cello sonata is out of the top drawer and I am amazed that this work is not a staple of the cello repertoire. As I have come to expect from Bowen, the sonata is often tender, melodic and shamelessly romantic in mood. Bowen's chamber music is extremely distinctive in style and the cello sonata is no exception. Here the piano part dominates and the brilliant writing could be from a Rachmaninov or Albeniz piano concerto. The highlight of a fine work is the final movement Allegro con fuoco, which demands to be heard. Unfortunately the technical difficulties seem to stretch Cellist Jo Cole beyond her limit at times.

Although I am not familiar with it, there is an alternative version of the Bowen cello sonata from the soloists of the Endymion Ensemble, from a release of Bowen chamber music on Dutton CDLX7120. The booklet notes on this BMS disc states that all these works are premier recordings, so I can only guess that they were recorded before the Dutton version.

Royal Academy of Music trained cello soloist Jo Cole clearly loves these works and gives energetic and enthusiastic performances. Frequently I wondered about the tuning of Cole's instrument. I'm sorry to report that I found her tone unpleasant at times, especially in the middle to higher registers. On several occasions she seemed to really struggle technically. It made me wonder how these sonatas would have sounded in the hands of a heavyweight cellist. The pianist John Talbot gives committed performances and consistently takes the lead; even dominating the proceedings at times. The piano I do not feel is heard to its best advantage, owing to Talbot's overuse of the sustaining pedal, particularly in the Foulds sonata. Furthermore, there is an over-reverberant acoustic, again particularly noticeable in the Foulds, a phenomenon which I have also experienced with another BMS recording.

It is suggested that owing to the generous length of the CDs playing time there could be a problem with ejecting the disc from the CD player. I can report experiencing no such problems.

Reservations aside, collectors of English chamber works are urged to hear these interesting works; especially the Bowen.

Michael Cookson

The British Music Society

 



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