The English Viola
Arthur BLISS (1890 - 1975)
Viola Sonata (1933) [26:11]
Frederick DELIUS (1862 - 1934)
Violin Sonata No.3 (1930) (arr. Lionel TERTIS (1876 - 1975) (1932) [16:30]
Frank BRIDGE (1879 - 1941)
Allegro appassionato (1907) [2:17]; Serenade (1903) [2:41]; Souvenir (1904) [4:00]; Gondoliera (1907) [4:06]; Pensiero (1908) [4:15]; Norse Legend (1905) [3:33]; Berceuse (1901) [3:34]
Enikö Magyar (viola); Tadashi Imai (piano)
rec. 10, 11, 13 July 2009, Phoenix Studios, Budapest. DDD
NAXOS 8.572407 [67:52]

This disc has Lionel Tertis stamped all over it. The pioneering violist was the inspirer of Bliss’s hugely impressive sonata. At the private first performance, which he gave, Solomon was his piano partner for whom William Walton turned the pages. Soon after that Rubinstein was sight-reading the piano part for a BBC broadcast with Tertis. The Bliss sonata has had expensive tastes in pianists - not to mention violists.

And now we have Hungarian-born and now London-resident Enikö Magyar to add to the roster. She was a student of, amongst others, Martin Outram with whom she presumably studied the sonata. Perhaps he even introduced her to it. He’s already recorded it for Naxos [8.555931] on an all-Bliss chamber disc, so Naxos is now sporting two competing versions, though the element of ‘competition’ is lessened by the repertoire involved in each disc.

In any case there are strong points of divergence in their performances. She very properly has her own ideas, and these are not simply to do with tempo. On that point she is certainly slower in the first two movements than Outram, but also tends to sculpt phrases rather more dramatically and succulently. She has splendid tonal depth and this gives her sense of projection an almost theatrical dimension. She plays moreover with flexible metre, but stresses the moderato element of the first movement in particular, where Outram moves things on that bit more tersely. It’s this degree of passionate commitment that I admire so much in her playing. The slow movement’s opening and closing pizzicato are draped in melancholia, for instance, and paragraph points are always etched and alive. The vigorous figuration of the scherzo was ideally suited to Tertis’s bold, masculine and dashing virtuosity and she launches its dynamism with superb aplomb. So too the finale, ripely done, and which ends sonorously and decisively. This is an excellent performance on its own terms. Collectors will have their old-timers on the shelves: Forbes and Foggin (a big favourite of mine, recorded on three Decca 78s), Downes and Cassini (Revolution), Vardi and Sturrock (he made another recording with Weinstock too), Jones and Hampton [LIR011], Lederer and Murray - as well as Outram and James Rolton. No Tertis though, which is a great loss. My hunch is that he would have taken it far faster even than Outram. Bliss always admired Tertis’s sense of ‘flow’ and this was a characteristic of his playing.

But we have no Tertis recording, and nor do we of his own arrangement of Delius’s Third Violin Sonata. This followed a few years after his similar work with Elgar’s Cello Concerto. It works perfectly well and is susceptible to breadth of phrasing and the rich exploration of the viola’s more melancholic tonal qualities. Enikö Magyar and Tadashi Imai - whose success in this disc, and in particular his splendid accomplishment in the taxing Bliss sonata - play the Delius in the modern manner; quite slowly and with rich cantilena. They bring out its autumnal, resigned qualities all the while imbued with a vibrant sense of its structure. What I miss is the contrast between moods. The central movement could be more capriciously drawn. Here the B section is very serious-minded. It’s of a piece with the stance as a whole but I think it lacks contrast. So too the finale, which most violinists these days don’t take con moto enough. The danger in this sonata is that of a ‘too samey’ tempo.

The disc is fleshed out by Bridge’s lovely morceaux. Only two, surprisingly enough, were written for viola - which was Bridge’s own instrument. He made a number of 78s as a quartet player. The Allegro appassionato and Pensiero are the original viola pieces - the former flowing and almost ecstatic, the latter warmly textured. The Berceuse is a songful envoi. They’re all characterised excellently by this enterprising duo.

Though this is not actually a tribute disc to Tertis it can serve as an adjunct to his argumentative but proselytizing genius for his instrument. More germane to this review it announces another highly impressive young violist and duo. Finally the Bliss recording is a strongly recommendable one and the Delius in its viola incarnation is rare.

Jonathan Woolf