“The Cinderella of string instruments”
“A violist and a cellist were standing on a sinking ship. ‘Help!’ cried the cellist, I can’t swim. ‘Don’t worry’, said the violist ‘just fake it.’”
“How can you be expected to take an instrument seriously when on a high-profile CD like this two of the works were originally written for cello”.
Now before the letters of protest clatter onto my doorstep I will add that the above are not my words but those of a lovely ex-pupil now in the viola section of a top London orchestra and enjoying every minute! We sat down with the score of Ireland’s Cello Sonata
, the longest work on the disc and listened. The transcription is special because in part at least the composer made it himself for the great Lionel Tertis who inspired a whole raft of music for his instrument, both transcriptions and originals. He and Ireland broadcast the transcription during the second world war. It was what the composer wanted. True, you do lose some of the original brooding earthiness in favour of a wistful melancholy but this is not just a case of shoving everything up the octave for the viola. Ireland and Tertis exploited the wonderful viola range above the treble clef much more especially in the second movement. This meant re-voicing some of the piano chords quite magically. Martin Outram has a marvellous tone also in the darker lower octave and the balance with the piano is excellent.
The other première recording here is also a transcription. Delius’s Cello Sonata
plays in one continuous lyrical flow with the soloist hardly ever resting. As Roger Buckley of the Delius Society comments in his very useful booklet note on this work it falls into three sections with a central dreamy Lento, molto tranquillo
. Martin Outram has transcribed this himself and there is a precedent because Tertis transcribed other works of Delius in the composer’s lifetime and with his approval. This piece works very well and seems highly suitable in its new guise. In fact not knowing the original I could easily have thought that this arrangement was its original.
Given its English pastoral vein it seems incredible that Gordon Jacob’s Viola Sonata
should date from 1978. This is particularly in movement two which speaks of past years with nostalgia and yearning. The outer movements are more spiky and the whole, as ever with Jacob, is beautifully and effortlessly conceived for an instrument he loved. He wrote two viola concertos fifty years apart and crafted many a fine sonata. My only complaint is that the happy finale is rather too short at less than two minutes.
Talking of spiky the most stylistically advanced piece here is Malcolm Arnold’s Sonata
which is surprisingly an early work of 1947. His studies into Bartók can be detected in certain ‘nocturnal’ effects found in the outer movements mainly with the use of ‘sul pont’ and the very highest register. I even detected a touch of Piazzolla (before his time) in the first movement. It is a highly original utterance and typically quirky. It would be especially suitable both in length and required technique for a student recital.
Like the wine at Canaan in Galilee the best is saved until last with a wonderful performance of Lennox Berkeley’s Viola Sonata
. And here the understanding behind this musical partnership comes to the fore because, as Outram writes in the interesting booklet notes the first movement “is in conversational sonata form” in which a balance of viola and piano is important. At one time the piano leads by suddenly and quixotically altering the mood and at another the viola. The middle movement is a heart-felt song which rises twice to an impassioned climax and the finale requires rhythmic dexterity from the partnership. This is a very fine work and I am delighted to make its acquaintance.
This disc is not just for aficionados of slightly obscure British music. This disc places the often-overlooked viola near the forefront of the musical life of the UK in the attraction it exercised over some of the finest composers of the era. That they took time out, as it were, to give it their best effort is praise indeed. With this music and these performances we are undoubtedly the richer.
see also review by Bob