Donald TOVEY (1875-1940)
Piano Trio, Op.27 (1910) [23:39]
Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29 (1913)
Piano Quartet, Op.12 (1900) [27:04]
London Piano Trio, Robert Atchison (violin), Ormesby Ensemble
rec. Potton Hall Studio, Westleton, Suffolk, 29 August 2007 (Trio);
7 July 2008 (Sonata and Quartet) DDD
GUILD GMCD7352 [74:40]
The music of Donald Tovey never ceases to amaze me. Firstly,
if you had asked me a few years ago about Mr. Tovey, I would
have answered that he was a fine musicologist who had occupied
the Reid Professorship at Edinburgh University. I would have
pointed out that he is best remembered for his massive series
of Essays in Musical Analysis. I wrote a thumbnail sketch
of his life and work in a recent review,
however it is important to reiterate one fact: Tovey believed
that making music was the most important thing in his life –
to this end he worked as a conductor, a pianist, an editor,
a writer, a broadcaster, a scholar, a teacher and last but certainly
no means least, as a composer. The music presented on this present
CD is superb. I can hardly begin to imagine how it has lain
undiscovered and un-played for so many years.
Over the last five or so years there have been a number of CDs
released of his music. In fact there has been a veritable explosion
of interest with the way being led by Toccata Records. It is
possible to listen to his Symphony,
Concertos, extracts from his major opera The Bride of Dionysus
Epoch) and the attractive Air for Strings. However it is
in the field of chamber music that most activity appears to
have been concentrated. In 1995 Marco Polo released the Sonata
for cello and piano in F major alongside the Variations for
the same combination. Three years ago Toccata produced a fine
CD of the Piano Trios in B minor and C minor. Last year
Guild released the Aria and Variations for String Quartet in
B flat major Op.11 and the Quartet for Strings in G major, Op.23:
this was well received by the musical press.
The Piano Trio in D major, Op.27 was composed in 1910 and was
given its first performance in the following year. It is a work
with which I felt I could immediately do business. The whole
mood of this first movement can be described as ‘open-air’ and
is well reflected in the ‘allegro con brio’ direction on the
first page of the score. However, it is not all fun and laughter:
there are moments of rest and contemplation provided by the
second subject. There are times here when this music approaches
the musical work of Edward Elgar, although it never really declares
itself as British piece of music.
The second movement is signed ‘larghetto maestoso’ and is really
in the form of a rhapsody – at least the various instrumentalists
appear to rhapsodise as the music unfolds. However, there is
a new theme introduced towards the end of the movement which
is really a touch of genius. This beautiful movement slowly
dies away into nothing.
The final movement has all the excitement and rhythmic vitality
of a trip on the railway. The programme notes point out that
Tovey travelled extensively by rail over his lifetime, and this
would have involved steam locomotives. Certainly this is one
of the best (and unsung) ‘railway pieces’ in the repertoire.
Two things to bear in mind. This is a reasonably relaxed journey
– possibly to a market town or the seaside rather than to Glasgow
or Manchester. And secondly, I have no doubt that Tovey did
not intend to make this into a miniature ‘tone poem’ for rail
enthusiasts, but it is just the sort of piece that could (just
about) be excerpted on Classic FM and would allow a whole range
of new listeners to be introduced to this fine composer. This
last movement along with the rest of the piece is a great and
thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Donald Tovey’s chamber
The greatest revelation on this CD is surely the fine Sonata
Eroica for solo violin, Op.29. This work was composed the year
before the Great War, in 1913 and was dedicated to Tovey’s friend,
the violinist Adolf Busch. I have not seen the score of this
work, but even on first hearing it is clear that this is a piece
that is full of technical difficulties for the soloist. However,
this observation needs further consideration. In spite of a
plethora of complex technical effects it remains a viable piece
of music. This is not a study designed to help the player play
better. It is not a Sonata that has been evacuated of a satisfying
musical experience in favour of a concatenation of exercises
that sound impressive but is devoid of inspiration and fails
to move the listener. It is a challenging and often moving masterpiece.
It is cast in four movements with the scherzo placed second.
The opening movement is in sonata-form with an introduction
that immediately defines the relevance of the work’s title.
The slow movement is particularly attractive and is ‘an extremely
beautiful and evocative reminder of a more relaxed and thoughtful
era.’ The finale is a tour de force that requires huge skill
from the soloist with considerable contrapuntal development
requiring two completely different styles of ‘melody’ playing
at the same time. I cannot play the violin, but I was left speechless
by the technical complexity of this movement. As to what the
music sounds like it is actually quite hard to pin down. There
are moments of Bach, and perhaps not surprisingly, echoes of
Paganini: the programme notes suggest the Ysaye’s solo sonatas,
but I am not familiar with these. Certainly there is nothing
here that nods to ‘modern’ developments on the Continent or
to the English Musical Renaissance. Like much of Sir Donald
Tovey’s music it is most certainly ‘retro’ but this does not
mean that it is pastiche of anyone else.
The Piano Quartet in E minor, Op.12 is an important and impressive
work by any standard. It was composed in 1900 and was dedicated
to Harold Joachim who had been one of Tovey’s tutors at Balliol
College. This is big music that is fairly and squarely in the
late-romantic tradition. Although ostensibly cast in two large-scale
movements the sheer variety of tempi and musical material make
it seem like more! The opening movement is again in sonata-form
and explores a number of virile themes, yet there are plenty
of introspective moments in this music that allow the players
and listeners to relax.
The ‘finale’ opens with a lovely solo cello melody played ‘largo.’
This is then expanded by the viola before the ‘formal’ structure
changes from a song to a chaconne. This is beautiful stately
music that is both valedictory and reflective. Then the musical
mood changes to ‘energico’: the spell is broken for a space.
Yet the music never becomes flamboyant: there is a sense of
melancholy which pervades the entire proceedings. Eventually
the dreamlike mood returns for the conclusion of this movement.
As the liner-notes point out ‘the piano floats away in a mist...into
the arms or Morpheus’. This is truly gorgeous music.
I guess that the range of classical music from Bach to Brahms
along with Stanford and Parry are the key influences in this
work as in much of Tovey’s music. Certainly he seems to look
more towards Germany than to his native heath. Yet it is not
so much influences as the final results that matter. Tovey has
managed to compose a corpus of music that is beholden to the
past, but is new, fresh and imaginative: he has made this style
of music his own. Finally and most of all it impresses and moves
Peter R. Shore provides a detailed introduction to the composer
and, along with the violinist Robert Atchison, a set of reasonable
programme notes for each work, although a little bit more detail
on the history and reception of each work would have been welcome.
And I wonder what ‘pedel’ tone is in the E minor Quartet!
I was impressed by the playing of all the musicians on this
CD, but special mention has to go to the aforementioned Mr.
Atchison for his stunning performance of the massive Sonata
Eroica. This is surely a major triumph in the history of recording
of British music. I am not usually a fan of ‘solo’ violin, but
this work ‘blew me away’. Yet the entire CD is a testament to
the interest being shown in so called ‘forgotten’ composers.
Fortunately there remains a deal of Sir Donald Tovey’s music
still to be released. It is with considerable expectation that
I await the next volume of chamber works from Guild. Perhaps,
as I suggested in a previous reviews, they will record the D
major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck
(flute also needed)?