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 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 (review review).
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 CDE 84286, 1995 (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.
Gary Higginson 

see also review by Bob Briggs

An imaginative programme, brilliantly handled … a very generously filled CD.