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Rebecca CLARKE (1886–1979)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) [27:01]
Passacaglia on an Old English Tune (1941) [5:17]
Lullaby (1909) [4:37]
Lullaby on an Ancient Irish Tune (1913) [2:36]
Morpheus (1918) [7:18]
Chinese Puzzle (1921) [1:28]
I’ll bid my heart be still (1944) [3:32]
Untitled Piece for Viola and Piano (c.1918) [5:21]
Dumka (1941)a [10:13]
Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale (1941)b [6:42]
Philip Duke (viola); Sophie Rahman (piano); Daniel Hope (violin)a; Robert Plane (clarinet)b
rec. Concert Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, June 2004
NAXOS 8.557934 [78:54]

For many long years Rebecca Clarke was just the name of a composer who had made some reputation with a substantial Viola Sonata, but I had never heard a note of her music. However, things changed when I got a copy of a long-deleted LP (Northeastern Records NR212 nla), that included that Viola Sonata as well as three other pieces with viola. Later still, I was able to hear more of her music (songs and works for violin and piano) when I found a second-hand copy of Gamut GAM CD 534 (now re-issued as Guild GMCD 7208). Listening to these discs made it clear, that Rebecca Clarke possessed a real, if somewhat limited talent, which makes the long neglect of her music the more incomprehensible, although one may point-out a few reasons for it. First of all, she was a woman composer, i.e. not really an asset in the then male-dominated musical establishment. Her existence was even questioned; and, as she recalled much later, an early press cutting suggested that the Viola Sonata had been composed by Ernest Bloch. Second, she was a miniaturist writing short instrumental works and songs, with no orchestral works to her credit. Finally, her own modesty did not help in disseminating her music; and, as a result, little of her output was published during her lifetime. Now, times may be ripe for a better appreciation of her achievement, and this generously filled release might well fill the bill. For any further information about this composer, visit the website www.rebeccaclarke.org.

From the details listed above, one realises that all these works, with the notable exception of the Viola Sonata, are quite short. One of these, Chinese Puzzle, plays for a little under two minutes! So, this release appropriately opens with the splendid Viola Sonata of 1919. It is in three movements, actually two rather developed outer movements framing a short lively Scherzo. The opening Impetuoso is warmly melodic, as is most of her music for that matter, whereas the music unfolds with some remarkable logic. The short Scherzo allows some mild dissonance into the harmonies, whereas the third movement, again on a large-scale, builds to some impressive climax before reaching a rapturous, beautiful conclusion  capped by a grand gesture. Clarke’s Viola Sonata is an imposing piece of music; and, though many have mentioned Brahms, the most striking similarity is – to my ears – Vaughan Williams, who is often recalled through the music’s modal inflections and folk-like tunes. Obviously, Clarke also knew some music by Debussy, as is evident both in this marvellous work and in some of the shorter ones heard here, such as the Untitled Piece for Viola and Piano, which may be experienced as some try-out for the Viola Sonata, as is Morpheus composed under the pseudonym of ‘Anthony Trent’. The fairly early Lullaby of 1909 also has some folk-like air, and I for one hear some allusion to the British folk-song The Springtime of the Year, incidentally arranged for mixed chorus by Vaughan Williams. However, the Lullaby on an Ancient Irish Tune is a quite different proposition. The music is tenser, more astringent and at times polytonal. The Passacaglia on an Old English Tune again brings Vaughan Williams to mind, the more so that the tune is not unlike that heard in RVW’s Thomas Tallis Fantasia. Originally composed for violin and piano, Chinese Puzzle was also arranged for viola. This is a delightful trifle.

Clarke’s later music, however, ventured into new fields. This may be heard in the Piano Trio Dumka (1941) and in Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet (also composed in 1941). In both works, Clarke again uses some more dissonant idiom and some polytonal harmonies, whereas Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale sometimes brings some Neo-classical Stravinsky to mind. This is particularly evident in the third section Pastorale. This clearly shows that for all her indebtedness to what is sometimes referred to as English Impressionism, Clarke’s music also explored some different territories, and I find it a cause for regret that she did not further exploit other possibilities, as suggested by her brief reliance on dissonance and polytonality.

This is a splendid release in every respect: excellent performances, very fine recording and – most importantly – great music which at long last receives it due. I urge anyone who has never been able to hear Rebecca Clarke’s music to rush and get this most valuable and welcome release.

Hubert Culot

see also Reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Michael Cookson

British Composers on Naxos page


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