British Women Composers
Ethel SMYTH (1858 – 1944) Violin Sonata in A minor, op.7 (1887) [28:20]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907 – 1994) Three Preludes (1970) [7:33]
Irène Regina WIENIAWSKA (POLDOWSKI) (1879- 1932) Violin Sonata in D minor (1912) [22:15]
Phyllis TATE (1911 – 1987) Triptych (1954) [16:41]
Ethel BARNS (1874 – 1948) La Chasse (1928) [3:32]
Clare Howick (violin), Sophia Rahman (piano)
rec. 27-28 December 2008, Coombehurst Studio, Kingston University, London. DDD
NAXOS 8.572291 [78:09]

An enterprising issue of music less often heard, but qualified by the title Women composers. I have said it before and I shall say it again, why do we have to advertise this point? Elizabeth Lutyens was once at a reception for the announcement of the forthcoming year’s Proms season and someone mentioned that two (or however many) works being played that year were by women composers. Lutyens, and if you knew Liz this will come as no surprise to you, said, in a loud voice, “yes, and (here she quoted a number) are by homosexual composers, you won’t mention that!” Of course she is right. What does it matter what the sex, or sexual orientation, of the composer is? And what’s more, if you were to listen to these fine pieces you’d never know the sex of the composer. So, ultimately, what does it matter?

Take Maconchy’s Three Preludes. Here is strong, argumentative music, finely wrought, purposeful in intent, and with a stark beauty. Maconchy is known for her Quartets and her string writing is the best of her. This piece, alone, is worth the price of the disk. Ethel Smyth’s Sonata is a big-boned, early, work, Brahmsian, to be sure, but with an emerging individual voice. Whilst this work doesn’t have the character, or the drive, of the Concerto for Horn and Violin, it cannot be ignored, for there is much to be admired here.

Irène Regina Wieniawska was the daughter of the great virtuoso Wieniawski and she published her work under the name Poldowski. On marrying Sir Aubrey Dean Paul she became Lady Irène Dean Paul and a British national, hence her inclusion here. Her Violin Sonata is a piece of romantic writing, not as strong as the Smyth but with sturdy tunes and a solid grasp of form. That said, it outstays its welcome. One wonders why this was included when there are many superior works for violin and piano by British women composers – such as Elizabeth Lutyens’s superb Scroll For Li–Ho (1967) or the Sonata by Grace Williams.

If you only know Phyllis Tate’s music from the Suite - London Fields (available on Lyrita SRCD.214 in a mixed concert) or the Sonata for clarinet and cello (available on Gasparo GSCD 330 as part of a mixed recital), this Triptych will come as a shock. On first hearing, it appears to be quite austere, but as one gets to know it the music reveals its secrets. I was especially pleased to read in the notes that the work, “consists of three movements”. Who could have guessed it? What we need now is a new recording of her Nocturne for four voices, string quartet, double bass, bass clarinet, and celesta. How about that, Naxos?

Ethel Barns’ La Chasse is a marvellous piece of whimsy with which to end a stimulating and enjoyable recital. This is a most worthwhile disk, containing music which should be heard. These works are nicely juxtaposed, in very fine performances that evince total commitment. The sound is excellent and the notes good. This isn’t just for those of us who are passionate about British music, it’s for everyone interested in good music.

Bob Briggs

Not just for those who are passionate about British music, it’s for everyone interested in good music.