In 2007 Dutton released a CD of violin and piano music by Cyril Scott that included a number of his shorter essays in this medium alongside the major, mature Sonata Lirica. Some three years later Naxos has just issued a further three Sonatas from both ends of the composer’s creative life. Nothing is said on the CD cover (or elsewhere) as to whether this is a ‘first volume’ or whether it is simply a one-off. Yet one thing is clear – on the basis of the recorded music presently available for violin and piano from Scott’s pen, we desperately need to complete the canon, as it were. Two major sonatas remain unrecorded alongside the two Sonnets, the Irish Suite, Cherry Ripe and the Irish air Gentle Maiden. Let us hope that these pieces will be forthcoming. Meanwhile the three Sonatas presented in this CD are all important contributions to the genre.
The First Sonata was composed in 1908 and was premiered in March of that year. It was dedicated to the composer Ethel Barns. This is a large four movement work that lasts for nearly half an hour. At the time of its performance it was regarded as extremely advanced and technically challenging. It is full of big themes that are marshalled with skill and power. Typically the shifting harmonies used in this work are gorgeous – some reviewers have suggested that parts of this work are ‘Delian’ in their mood.
The first movement is tightly controlled, in spite of often being rhapsodic in mood. The music is not written in a formal sonata-form as there is no recapitulation of the two main themes. In fact, after the development section the music moves immediately to a powerful and imposing coda.
The ‘andante mistico’ is exactly that: it is deliberately unfocused music that creates an impressionistic mood that captures the imagination in spite of the fact that it reminds the listener of a number of composers including Ravel, Ireland and Delius. Yet this is beautiful music that remains in the mind long after the work has concluded.
Eaglefield Hull has noted that the third movement, which is really the ‘scherzo’, has been likened to the ‘playfulness of monkeys in a tropical forest.’ It is not a metaphor that strikes me as being pertinent, save that it does highlight the total contrast between this music and the preceding ‘exotic melancholy’ of the second movement. However, monkeys or not, the ‘allegro molto scherzando’ is exhilarating and balances fine violin playing with piano writing that includes glissandi and spread chords. There is a reflective middle section that nods back to the previous movement; however this does not last long, before the exuberance returns and brings this short scherzo to a rollicking end.
The final movement is similar to the first in that it is composed in a modified sonata form: it has two contrasting themes and once again dispenses with a formal recapitulation. These subjects are developed with care and skill, providing music that never loses interest.
This Sonata is deeply felt and blends feelings of highly charged emotion with a sense of resignation. Somehow Cyril Scott has, in this Sonata managed to square that particular circle.
The second piece is subtitled Sonata Melodica. This three movement work was composed in 1950 and was first performed at the Music Teachers Association Concert in London the following year. The conventional wisdom appears to be that this is, by definition more relaxed than many of Scott’s chamber works. However, I have listened to it twice and I do not really feel that it is particularly less intense or involved than other works of this period. In fact, the melodic and harmonic resources used are both complex and at times aggressive. Yet, there are moments when a filigree of magic takes to the air. Certainly, the first movement, which is nearly as long as the second and third combined, manages to present a huge contrast in emotional resources. On face value the ‘adagio ma non troppo’ would seem to be reflective and ‘pensive’ but even here there are attempts to destroy the mood by the use of forceful piano chords that dispel the enchantment. However the serenity finally triumphs and brings the movement to a quiet close. This mood of tranquillity is shattered by the dynamic ‘allegro vigoroso’ that balances a well-crafted toccata-like melodic line with something a lot wilder and perhaps improvisatory. The conclusion of this movement and of the work is positive, but somewhat disturbing. The calm of the last bars of the adagio are not reiterated.
The latest piece on this CD is the Third Violin Sonata, written in 1955 when the composer was 76 years old. It certainly cannot be seen as the work of an elderly man at the end of his composing career. In fact Scott was to live and compose until he was nearly ninety years old.
From the opening unaccompanied violin statement this work unfolds its argument in a lyrical, but much more astringent manner than the previous two sonatas. The programme notes suggest that in spite of the first movement being signed ‘tranquillo’ the music gains a darker colouring and ‘expressive fervour’. Here and there pastoral phrases ease the tension but never entirely dissipate the concentration of the argument. The intensity is relaxed a little as the violin recollects earlier material, before bringing the movement to an ‘impassioned’ close.
The second movement, a ‘pastorale: andante amabile’ is described as ranking ‘amongst the most lilting and unaffected in all Scott’s chamber output.’ Certainly, this music is in total contrast to the previous movement. However, the musical material is not in any way ‘typically’ pastoral: this is not a sunny landscape in the Home Counties, but something just a little bleaker. In fact, this is deeply introspective music that haunts the listener.
The final Rondo Capriccioso is in complete contrast, yet this is not a jolly rondo that casts care to the winds. It is an intense piece that balances a vigorous tune with a ‘secondary theme [that] brings a measure of calm’ but never manages to raise the largely dark tones of this movement and work.
All the music on this CD is played with conviction and sympathy. To my knowledge, there are no other recordings of these three Sonatas available for comparison; however my impression is that these works are given an absolutely ideal performance.
The sleeve-notes are well written by Richard Whitehouse and provide sufficient information for listeners to appreciate the music. Apart from a few pages about the First Sonata by A. Eaglefield Hull in his 1918 study of the composer, there is virtually nothing written about these works: there is a need for a major study of the music of Cyril Scott. When this book is eventually written it will be discovered that Scott’s music developed in a very subtle but quite definite manner over the years of his composing life. There is also a tension between his art music and his more commercial pieces: there is a huge difference between the potboilers such as Rainbow Trout, Lotusland and the Irish Reel and the slow movement of the Third Violin Sonata. However, great as the differences may be, they are clearly by the same composer.
Finally, these three Sonatas are all important and rewarding pieces that deserve to be in the repertoire. I have a personal preference for the ‘capricious and ruminative’ First Sonata; however, the other later works are both absorbing and demanding. The Second is a little more ‘relaxed’ in mood whilst the last is ‘one of most inventive works from Scott’s later years’.