An ex-pupil now a professional violist said, on seeing
this CD on my stereo, “That’s a brave disc!”.
In some ways it is; it is also very refreshing. I used to instil
- or at least attempt to - in my pupils when I taught at girls’
schools that if they didn’t play music by women
then who would? Well, Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman along with
the ever-enterprising Naxos are doing just that. This disc is
a fine testimony to their efforts following on from their successful
foray into Cyril Scott on Naxos 8.572290 (review1
The first work and the longest is by that doyen of feminism
in music Dame Ethel Smyth. But forgetting her sex is
this A minor Sonata any good? I must admit to
knowing it already through a version by Nicoline Kraamwinkel
and Julian Rolton - members of the Chagall Trio on Meridian
CDE84286 (with Smyth’s Piano Trio in D minor and Cello
Sonata in A minor, Op. 5). This new version is more than its
equal although almost four minutes longer. It’s an early
work and shows the influence of Brahms - particularly in the
sonata-form opening Allegro. Apparently Brahms met Smyth and
found her quite alarming. Also one might detect a touch of Dvořák
in the Scherzo second movement. There’s some trace
of Schumann in the following Romanza and sometimes Grieg.
It’s in the strong, vibrant and dramatic finale that Smyth’s
voice begins to emerge. Perhaps it was this movement that, according
to Caroline Waight’s useful booklet essay, Joachim found
‘overwrought and far-fetched”. It is apt for such
a Germanic work that it was first performed in Leipzig. In truth
it’s difficult to think of another British violin sonata
of the period, which is as fine as this, despite the fact that
there are moments of note-spinning. I can’t help but wonder
why it has hardly ever been taken up. At almost half an hour,
it is, I suppose, quite a commitment for the performers and
for the promoters to put on a fairly obscure sonata which will
take up most of a half of a recital. Yet this recording surely
proves their misgivings wrong.
No doubt you have attempted the car game ‘name six great
Belgians’. Did you consider the composer Henryk Wieniawski’s
daughter Irène Regina who was born in Brussels. That
city saw this terrific Sonata in D minor first performed.
She married one Sir Aubrey Dean Paul in 1901 which is how she
comes, someone tenuously, to be called a British composer. She
published under the name of ‘Poldowski’.
When listening to this three movement work I at first heard
Rachmaninov. Then, as it went on its passionate way, I found
myself increasingly excited by the music. I started to hear,
especially in the finale, traces of César Franck, not
surpassingly and of Ernest Chausson. They are there to hear
in the intense chromaticisms and wild and almost violent piano
part. For me this work is the find of the year so far; certainly
the best work on this disc. The first movement is a deliciously
‘fey’ Andante languido and the middle movement
is a tripartite Scherzo with a romantic middle section.
The performers stretch their sinews to make this piece to come
life and succeed whole-heartedly.
I’m writing this review just a few weeks before what will
be, the centenary on 6 April 2011 of the birth of Phyllis
Tate. Listening to her original and fascinating Triptych
I find myself wondering if I will have the chance to hear anything
else by her this Spring whether from a live performance or from
the BBC. There should, most certainly, be other opportunities.
She was famously critical and not prolific but this work offers
us mystery and a probing harmony in the first movement, a mercurial
Scherzo in the second and a formally complex finale marked Soliloquy
- Lento sostenuto. With the latter’s changes of mood
and textures, the ear never tires and time passes quickly. This
is altogether a good introduction, and is passionately played.
Tate’s music is well worth searching out. Sadly she is
a composer few of whose pieces are available in the catalogue.
The unpublished Three Preludes of Elizabeth Maconchy
are in her fairly usual dissonant and quite uncompromisingly
unromantic manner. Some listeners may be reminded of her 9th
and 10th Quartets from broadly the same period. The
first Prelude is marked Tempo libero senza mesura and
is intense and dissonant. The second has a winding fugal subject
subjected to just enough treatment. The third is marked Con
allegrezza and is sinewy but full of energy. It’s
a useful addition to the repertoire and contributes to our understanding
of this composer.
For some reason I seem not to have come across Ethel Barns.
It seems incredible really as her music was played by all of
the leading figures of her day including Joachim. She and her
husband set up a concert series I’d vaguely heard of,
the Barnes-Phillips Chamber concerts. Her La Chasse is
in the virtuoso encore category, the sort of piece very popular
in its day. It is brilliantly handled and brings this very generously
filled CD to a rousing conclusion.
see also review by Bob