John Blackwood McEWEN
Violin Sonatas No. 2; No. 5 Sonata-Fantasia
& No 6
Prince Charlie - A Scottish
Olivier Charlier (violin);
Geoffrey Tozer (piano)
rec 16/17 March 2000 Potton Hall,
CHANDOS CHAN 9880
There is always a tendency to side-line a composer who writes works with
'kailyard' titles. And were we to judge McEwen on this criterion we would
be in danger of dismissing one of the finest Scottish composers of this century.
The present recording includes a piece called 'Prince Charlie' - a Scottish
rhapsody. More about this concatenation of 'Highland' tunes later. Yet let
us not be beguiled into regarding McEwen as a lightweight. His music was
not regular 'Rothesay Pavilion' fare. This composer had a fine catalogue
of chamber music and orchestral works under his kilt. He wrote some five
symphonies, nineteen string quartets and seven violin & piano sonatas.
It is this chamber music that concerns us here - and the violin sonatas in
Chandos, in conjunction with the Ralph Vaughan Williams' Trust, have embarked
on an ambitious recording programme encompassing much that is regarded as
best in the catalogue - including all the published piano music and nine
of the string quartets. This is in addition to their previous releases of
the 'Solway' Symphony, the Border Ballads, the oratorio 'The Hymn on the
Nativity', 'Where the Wild Thyme Blows' and the evocatively named 'Hills
o' Heather' for 'cello & orchestra.
McEwen is rather like the district of Galloway - an undiscovered country.
Both deserve to be much better known. A few brief notes about the composer's
life and works are in order. Born in the Border town of Hawick in 1868. Studied
at Glasgow University - gaining an M.A. - then at the Royal Academy of Music
under the tutelage of Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder.
Held posts as choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and in Lanark. Founded
Anglo-French Music Publishing Company. Taught harmony and composition at
the Athenaeum at Glasgow. Moved to Royal Academy of Music in London teaching
the same subjects. In 1924 he succeeded Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie
as Principal of this institution. He retired in 1936. He was author of a
number of books and articles. McEwen died on the 14th June 1948.
Bernard Benoliel gives superb, essay-like 'programme' notes. And these are
so necessary when dealing with a full CD of works unrecorded and unheard
for generations. However, I am always a little concerned when a musicologist
tries to relate a composer's style to a host of influences. Benoliel finds
influences from Franck, Chausson, Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven, Berlioz,
Fauré, Schoenberg, Bartok, Roussel, Prokofiev & Schumann. All
very laudable as an exercise on 'source criticism', but one wonders whether
it is not best to see a composer as subject to a host of conscious and
unconscious impressions from a lifetime of playing and listening - rather
than deliberately alluding to other composers or even stooping to writing
pastiche. I feel that McEwen was composing in a wide ranging, broadly
post-romantic style which stands on its own two feet. The more I listen to
the works on this CD the more I feel that McEwen has a distinctive voice
of his own.
This is not the place to indulge in analysis of the sonatas - the programme
note are admirable here. However, a few comments will not go amiss.
The Second Sonata was written in France during his stay at Cap Ferret in
Bordeaux. It was completed in December 1914 shortly after the outbreak of
the First World War. This is by no means a warm work - at least not in my
opinion. There is a definite economy of texture which acts as an edge to
any wallowing in romantic lushness. It is, actually, a work permeated by
a deep sadness. Perhaps it is his lamentation over the hostilities which
had just begun and were beginning to be realised that they would not 'be
all over by Christmas'? The sonata is curious insofar as McEwen dispenses
with time signatures and normal bar-lines. This was to allow great 'flexibility'
in its performance. Charlier and Tozer manage to reflect this sadness in
freedom with admirable skill. I feel it is not a work to be loved - at least
not at the first few hearings.
The Fifth Sonata is regarded as being his most successful essay in the present
form. It was completed in 1921 and carries a dedication to the English Kreisler,
Albert Sammons. The Fifth Sonata could not be in greater contrast to the
second. Its two movement cyclic form is precisely formed. Not here the liberating
feel of imprecise rhythmic instruction. There is a definite 'impressionist'
feel to this music -although of what variety is unimportant. McEwen makes
'impressionism' his own.
The last movement hails the Auld Alliance. A Highland dance in all its
boisterousness - and drone accompaniment - however not before the slower
sections of the Rondo movement declare a sadder and deeper note. A true Scot
- always tempering his enjoyment with 'Celtic' reflection.
The Sixth Sonata was composed in 1929 during his time as Principal of the
R.A.M. Once again this piece is of a much more conventional nature. It is
written in standard three movement Allegro-Andante-Vivace form. The first
movement is a quite conventional Sonata Allegro. The second movement is troubled.
McEwen is certainly aware of nuances of colour provided by Bartók
and Prokofiev - even if he is not using them as formal or structural models.
The last movement is much lighter, no brooding or maudlin atmosphere here.
Much as I do not like constant reference hunting in a composer's music, I
must confess to enjoying Benoliel's comment that part of this movement sounds
like Debussy - on 'Holiday in the Highlands'!
The last piece is the Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie. All instincts tell
you that this piece will not be a success. Charles Stewart ended his days
ingloriously in Rome. However his pretension to the throne generated an entire
industry in Scotland - especially in the poetry and song departments. McEwen
uses a number of tunes to evoke the memory of this 'hero'. It is a fantasy
based on a strange funeral version of 'Charlie is my Darling', although it
reappears in more traditional guise later. Other tunes are less well known
but equally poignant - especially the extremely reflective 'Wae's me for
Prince Charlie' & 'The Gypsie Laddie'. As a Scot myself I declare that
it would bring a tear to a glass eye. This is actually a well constructed
piece - defying all negative expectations of 'Tartanry'. Why is it not a
popular encore? Why is this the first ever recording?
McEwen is revealed as a great composer. He is not a 'Tartan' phenomenon.
He stands shoulder high in the musical heritage of Western European music.
The fact that his music is as yet little known is a cause for sadness. The
recent series of discs from Chandos (including the present CD) is a cause
for great joy.
McEwen was not one to push his own 'opus' forward. This probably caused his
works to languish.
Summing up, I believe that the music of McEwen will come to be recognised
as being great. It is well crafted, technically competent and musically
The Musical Times reporting on the Centenary concert of the R.A.M stated,
"It is for those who are ready to forego excitement and take measured delight
in fine quality."
It is dangerous for a reviewer to abuse superlatives - but this is a phenomenal
disc. The playing is superb and the programme is revelatory. We await the
further instalments of this cycle with impatience. Finally a little bit of
special pleading - let us hope that Chandos will one day record the Wind
Quintet 'Under Northern Skies' and the Viola Concerto written for Lionel