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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Viola Sonatas
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)

Viola Sonata (1919)
Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)

Viola Sonata in B flat Op 36 (1863)
Georges ENESCU (1881-1955)
Konzertstück (1906)
Barbara Westphal (viola)
Jeffrey Swann (piano)
Recorded 2001
BRIDGE 9109 [56.21]

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It’s interesting to speculate – interesting if fruitless – on the fortunes for Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata had it been recorded in the 1920s or 1930s. Columbia embarked on a mini series of composer-authorised sonata recordings – Albert Sammons and John Ireland in the latter’s Second Violin Sonata, Lionel Tertis and Arnold Bax in his Viola Sonata, both of which fell prey to the unfavourable economic climate of the Wall Street crash and were never issued (though they both survived and are now in the catalogue, the former on Dutton, the latter on Pearl). Clarke was a viola player herself and a fine one, and received some lessons from Tertis (though he doesn’t mention her in his autobiography) but she made only one recording, for Compton Mackenzie’s National Gramophonic Society in 1930 – Mozart’s Kegelstadt Trio with clarinettist Frederick Thurston and pianist Kathleen Long. If Aeolian Vocalion had been more on the ball they might have given the work an airing between 1920 and 1924 – they had Tertis on their roster of artists at the time or could have signed the young composer herself. It would certainly have raised her profile if nothing else. Still, a fruitless diversion given the relative indifference with which her work was received by recording companies and promoters at the time.

Her time has come of course, and it’s true not just of the Viola Sonata which has a number of recordings to its name – Garfield Jackson and Martin Roscoe on ASV, Dann and Vogt on CBC, Schotten and Collier on Crystal, Coletti and Howard on Hyperion (for some a front runner - review) as well as Riebl and Höfer on Project Arts Nova and more recently Helen Callus and Robert McDonald, again on ASV – a most well-chosen disc coupling Clarke (and including Morpheus and Lullaby as well) with works by Freda Swain, Janetta Gould and Pamela Harrison. [see also Clarke, Martinu and Regaer Viola Sonatas on Calliope - LM] Barbara Westphal and Jeffrey Swann’s disc was recorded and released in 2001 and makes a versatile addition to the catalogue, coupled as it is with Enescu’s youthful Concert work and Vieuxtemps’ established mid nineteenth century classic. Westphal is excellent in the folk inflected episodes of the Impetuoso first movement of the Clarke, bringing off the quasi-improvisatory opening flourish with creditable panache. She can mine the consolingly reflective second subject as well – even if the repeated notes here did not sound absolutely vibrant – and catches the lift as the movement opens out expressively, Jeffrey Swan offering finely graded dynamics. Westphal and Swann are not as vigorous in the Vivace second movement as some but they do explore the implications of the vertiginous decent from highest to lowest strings fully – and bring a playful patina to the movement. Swann’s rippling piano work is pleasurable here and Westphal follows the viola’s lyrical, somewhat discursive line with intelligence and judgement. Westphal maintains intonation in the highest registers in the difficult finale and she brings a cultivated simplicity in terms of tone and line. In one of the work’s most tricky passages – the transitional moment from Adagio section to Allegro – embodied by the buzzing viola, she emerges well. As the work draws to an end Westphal and Swann successfully explore the contrastive interior and exterior material.

Vieuxtemps’ Sonata dates from 1863 and is in three movements. Westphal and Swann are certainly attuned to its brand of stately nobility in the opening movement and manage to contrast this with moments of little declamatory outbursts. The conclusion is effected with maestoso grandeur, Westphal full of depth and sensitivity. The second movement is a whimsical little Barcarolle, variational, exploring registral potential in the viola – both light and dark – and the finale a bounding, charmingly off-hand creation. In fact the work lightens as it develops, divesting itself of pomp and embracing charm and lightness. To conclude we have Enescu’s prentice work – rather pastoral and full of roulades and double stops, covering some stylistic ground – including the salon – as well as testing register solidity and vibrance in the performer. In the faster section of this nine-minute work there’s a degree of room for expressive elasticity. Enescu apparently said that he wrote the work as a student and arranged it for viola and orchestra (a version now lost). It does certainly resemble, as the notes suggest, a conservatoire test piece in its all-embracing potential for lyrical and digital freedom.

This is a useful recital that dispenses with the chronological running order – it starts with the Clarke – and is attractively phrased and well played. Notes are good and sound quality excellent.

Jonathan Woolf


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