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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Elegy for solo viola
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)

Lullaby no. 1, Morpheus, Sonata
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)

The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol, Arrival Platform Humlet (for solo viola)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)

Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Pensiero, Allegro appassionato
Paul Coletti (viola), Leslie Howard (pianoforte)
Recorded 21-23.9.1993, location not given
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55085 [66.51] Budget price

I forget which was the disc which first alerted us to the fact that Rebecca Clarke was a composer to be reckoned with, but I think it may have been this one. Certainly this big (even if it lasts a mere 21’ 18" by the clock) and challenging sonata should leave no one in any doubt. A viola-player herself she knew how to exploit the particular tone-colours of the instrument, yet the piano part – a truly equal partner - is no less rewarding, with its range of post-impressionist timbres. There are more overtly French leanings than we are wont to hear from the mainstream English composers of the time (maybe a question of textural luminosity more than anything else), yet the cut of the themes is definitely English. The hard-hitting scherzo is a very striking piece, while the outer movements unite surging emotion and gentler poetry with a firm structural hand. The two shorter pieces are also rewarding and resourceful.

Another viola player was Frank Bridge – how violists must regret that he never wrote a sonata to put alongside his magnificent Cello Sonata (of which I recently recommended a very fine recording by Oystein Birkeland on Simax PSC 1160). The two pieces here, which are all he wrote for his instrument, say a remarkable lot in a short space of time.

It was typical of Vaughan Williams to call a piece a Romance, and then to write a big-boned, impassioned outpouring – and then not even bother to publish it! About the Bax Legend I am not so sure. Coming between the 3rd and 4th Symphonies I would have expected something more obviously Baxian. It has fine moments but it also reminds us that Bax, when inspiration was not forthcoming, tended to go ahead and write anyway. The Grainger Carol arrangement explores the viola’s lower sonorities remarkably (very remarkably considering this wasn’t even its original form – like so much Grainger, numerous versions abound) but the Humlet seemed to me a bit gritty for what it’s supposed to represent. I’m afraid the 14-year-old Benjamin Britten’s piece said nothing to me.

Finely committed performances. I did wonder about two-thirds through if Coletti was not over-using the device of upward portamenti which, together with a strong and fast vibrato, create a gypsy-style effect at times. But this is a matter of personal taste and there is no doubt he’s an excellent player and works well in duo with Howard. The recording seemed a bit close in the two solo pieces but this is a marginal quibble and some might prefer it like that.

All in all, the record serves to show that, thanks to Lionel Tertis’s inspiration, Great Britain probably produced a larger 20th Century viola repertoire than any other country, and there must be much more to discover. I remember working at a fine sonata by Thomas Pitfield in my schooldays with a viola-playing friend, for example, and would rather like to hear it again. And, since another point of this CD is the rediscovery of a splendid woman-composer, could I point out that Dorothy Howell might equally repay examination? Don’t think I have a personal interest, she was no relation of mine; but some of her shorter piano pieces that I have seen are decidedly impressive.

Christopher Howell


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