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Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Viola Music
Viola Sonata (1919) [27:01]
Passacaglia (on an old English tune) for viola and piano (c.1941) [5:17]
Lullaby for viola and piano (1909) [4:37]
Lullaby on an Ancient Irish Tune for viola and piano (1913) [2:36]
Morpheus for viola and piano (c.1918) [7:18]
Chinese Puzzle for viola and piano (1922) [1:28]
I’II bid my heart be still for viola and piano (1944) [3:32]
Untitled Piece for viola and piano (c.1918) [5:21]
Dumka for violin, viola and piano (c.1941) [10:13]
Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet (1941) [6:42]
Philip Dukes (viola); Sophia Rahman (piano); Daniel Hope (violin); Robert Plane (clarinet)
rec. 3-5 June 2004, Concert Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.557934 [78:54]

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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.

Michael Cookson 

British Composers on Naxos page


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