With the Naxos label’s worldwide
marketing strength it would be no surprise to me if this release helped
to spark a resurgence of international interest in the music of Rebecca
Clarke. The issue certainly has a considerable number of positive features,
not least the wonderful Viola Sonata which is the featured work
and also the exceptionally talented group of performers. Evidently this
is the world premiere recording of the ‘Untitled Piece’ for
viola and piano.
It seems strange that this
issue was not was released as part of Naxos’s ‘20th Century British
Music’ series as were the recent releases of viola works on 8.557784
and violin sonatas on 8.557540 from Clarke’s close contemporary Arnold
Bax. Maybe it was because Clarke, English-born in Harrow, spent a significant
amount of her adult life in the USA and had dual nationality.
Clarke is primarily remembered
as a contemporary of the eminent English-born composers Vaughan Williams
and Holst, who were also pupils of Stanford at the Royal College of
Music in London, with whom Clarke studied as his first female composition
pupil. There was some critical success afforded to Clarke in her lifetime.
In 1919 Clarke’s Viola Sonata just failed by the patron’s casting
vote to win first prize at the prestigious Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge
Chamber Festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Sadly Clarke was unable
to sustain what she called her, “… little whiff of success …”
In 1939, owing to her close family connections, she again visited the
USA before the outbreak of war and ended up staying in the country for
the rest of her life. In 1944 Clarke married the Scottish-born James
Friskin who had also been a composition pupil of Stanford.
The Viola Sonata commences
with a substantial movement marked Impetuoso. This opens with
Dukes and Rahman providing a strong Celtic-style melody that feels like
a martial rallying cry. Here one can easily hear Stanford’s influence.
From 1:38 the mood changes to one of a mysterious yearning character.
The atmosphere at 5:18 reverts to the boldness of the opening before
at 7:02 becoming generally calm with a sense of exhaustion. I enjoyed
the impressive playing in the short central movement Vivace.
Here the unusual and colourful rhythms, that repeatedly change,
provide a rather exotic feel. I cannot say that I experienced this movement
as a, “… sprightly scherzo …” as described in the booklet notes.
The lengthy closing movement, an Adagio, has that mysterious
yearning quality of the Impetuoso. I noted the viola playing
of Dukes briefly at 1:46 as uncomfortably jerky. Repeatedly the duo
impressively builds up an aching intensity before finding more relaxing
episodes of respite.
In these scores Clarke seems
to have a signature style that I have previously described as having
a “mysterious yearning” quality. This style applies largely to
the Passacaglia; Lullaby; Lullaby on an Ancient Irish
tune; Morpheus; I’II bid my heart be still; Untitled
Piece and the Dumka Trio. These well-crafted works rather
lack variety although they are still engaging leaving a considerable
impression. The often mentioned comparisons to the sound-world of “English
impressionism” is over-emphasised. I especially enjoyed this performance
of the melancholy Passacaglia where they generate a considerable
degree of tension. The players provide a high Celtic Baxian quality
in the Lullaby; Lullaby on an Ancient Irish tune and the
substantial Morpheus. The Dumka is reasonably interesting
containing varied moods and some unusual rhythms.
The charming Chinese Puzzle, just as its title suggests,
carries a traditional Chinese flavour, rather echoing a disc I have
of authentic Chinese music to accompany Tai Chi. The Prelude,
Allegro and Pastorale using the less usual combination of viola
and clarinet has a spirited and edgy central Allegro flanked
by slower outer movements and proves to be a fascinating score. The
clarinet playing of Robert Plane is impressive with an especially pleasing
timbre. In general the sound quality on this fairly closely recorded
Naxos release is warm and clear with a decent balance. The informative
and interesting booklet notes by Liane Curtis, President of the Rebecca
Clarke Society serve the issue admirably.
There are several accounts
of the Clarke Viola Sonata in the catalogues. I have been especially
impressed with the 1993 recording from Paul Coletti and Leslie Howard
on Hyperion Helios CDH55085 and also the 2001 version from Barbara Westphal
and Jeffrey Swann on Bridge 9109. This is not intended to be an exhaustive
list but for information purposes other versions of the Viola Sonata
include: Garfield Jackson and Martin Roscoe on ASV 932; Steven Dann
and Bruce Vogt ‘Portrait of the Viola’ on CBC Records MVCD1072;
Yizhak Schotten and Katherine Collier ‘Viola 1919’on Crystal
Records CD637 and Helen Callus and Robert McDonald ‘A Portrait Of
The Viola’ on ASV CDDCA1130.
This is a very splendidly
performed and recorded disc from Naxos that will undoubtedly bring the
music of Rebecca Clarke to a wider audience.
British Composers on Naxos page