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Complete Chamber Works for Cello
Partita for cello and piano, Op.35 (1959) [20:58]
Elegy for cello and piano, Op.5 (1950) [7:43]
Sonata for cello solo, Op.52 (1967) [18:33]
Alleluia Pascha Nostrum for cello and piano, Op.85 (1981)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Raphael Terroni (piano)
rec. Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, Cobham,
Surrey, 8 April 2009, 18 February 2010. DDD
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS439CD [61:03]
It is fitting that we have the ‘complete chamber works for cello’ now available for Kenneth Leighton enthusiasts. In recent years there has been a minor explosion in recordings of this composer’s music including the present Partita and Elegy on Dutton Epoch. The Editor has noted these in detail in his review on these pages. My interest in Leighton began in 1974 when I attended a performance of his First Symphony at the City Hall in Glasgow. The work was preceded by a talk by the composer. Apart from hearing a few organ pieces and choral works, my next discovery was the Veris Gratia which was released on Chandos (CHAN 8471) and coupled with Gerald Finzi’s masterly Cello Concerto. Raphael Wallfisch was the soloist on that disc, with George Caird playing the oboe. This was (and is) a composition that I would regard as one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’; it is a work that out-Finzi’s Finzi yet presents the then young composer as a vital voice in his own right.
The place to begin exploration of this present CD is with the Elegy, Op.5. This work is largely a serious, retrospective piece which is perhaps surprising to have come from the pen of a twenty-one year old. The lyrical sound of this work owes much to the pastoral music of Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi and Herbert Howells. However, it never rambles and owes nothing to folk-song. It is a beautiful tribute to his interest in these composers and should be in the repertoire of all cellists. The work was originally the middle movement of a Sonata in F minor which had been written in 1949. The liner-notes suggest that this sonata received only one performance at the University Music School in Cambridge. The work was subsequently withdrawn by the composer; the slow movement was retained, revised and renamed as the Elegy.
The next work to tackle is the fine Partita for cello and piano, Op.35. This was completed in 1959. There are at least two definitions of the musical form ‘partita’. Firstly, it could be an instrumental suite. This was a common usage on the 18th century. Secondly it may also refer to a set of variations. In the present work Kenneth Leighton has combined both meanings of the word. There are three movements, an Elegy, a Scherzo and a Theme and Variations. The last movement is longer than the first two combined. The Partita was first given by the cellist Florence Hooton who had also played his Cello Concerto some three years previously.
The opening ‘elegy’ begins with a big gesture from the piano before the cellist develops the mood with two related but lyrical themes. This exploration is interrupted by a puzzling march-like passage that unexpectedly comes to a conclusion. The rapid-fire Scherzo bursts in on the scene after the briefest of introduction. This is powerful, energetic music that is largely acerbic, with only the occasional hint of warmth.
However, the main focus of this Partita is in the deeply moving ‘Theme and Variations’. It is a well-constructed piece that explores a number of musical genres including a march, a waltz and a final chorale.
Taken as a whole this is an impressive and well-conceived work that has retained its vitality and depth over the past fifty or so years.
Any composer choosing to write a Sonata for cello solo must inevitably be influenced by the triumvirate of Bach’s sequence of Six Suites, Kodaly’s Sonata for unaccompanied cello (1910) and Britten’s 1st Suite (1965). Kenneth Leighton wrote his Sonata in 1967 so would have known all three composers’ essays in these forms. The composer never offered any suggestion that the work paid homage to Bach - or anyone else for that matter.
This is a ‘rhapsodic’ work that is very much part of the musical landscape of the mid-twentieth century, however in many ways this piece is timeless. The Sonata was conceived in three well-balanced movements. The opening ‘Lament and Pizzicato’ may seem a strange concatenation, yet the reality is that this movement works well. The pizzicato acts as a foil to the melancholic melody which opens and closes this movement. The composer has described it as a triptych. The same diversity of mood inhabits the second movement – this time counterpoising a ‘Toccata with a Cradle Song’. Really it is a ‘minuet and trio’ with the busy scuttling passages for the cello framing a tender and then passionate lullaby.
The final movement would appear to be even more complex with three elements in its construction – a flourish, a chaconne and a coda. Yet this works well, is not disjointed or disruptive. In fact, this judgement can be applied to the whole Sonata: the work is perfectly balanced. Perhaps the knack is not to try to pick out the different movement section titles: just listen to the work as a whole.
The latest work on this excellent compact disc is the Alleluia Pascha Nostrum, Op.85: it is subtitled ‘Meditations on plainsong melodies from the twelfth-century Salisbury Chant for Easter Day’. Composed in 1981, it was to be the composer’s last work for cello and piano. If I am honest this is the work that I enjoyed least on this CD. However, there is much here to challenge the listener. As each of the six sections unfold the composer’s fascination with plainsong reveals itself in greater detail. There is a definite mystical quality in this work that reflects the Leighton’s deeply-felt understanding of liturgical music.
The work was commissioned by Raphael Wallfisch, so it is appropriate that he should give such an accomplished performance on this present disc.
There can be no faulting of this disc: the playing by Raphael Wallfisch and Raphael Terroni is beyond criticism. Kenneth Leighton can have no better advocates of his cello chamber works. The liner-notes are excellent and make use of Leighton’s own programme notes. The sound quality of the recording is excellent. All in all, this is an essential disc for all Leighton enthusiasts and will also appeal to listeners who may not have heard of the composer but appreciate lyrical, well constructed and often deeply moving chamber music written for the cello.
also review by Rob Barnett