Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Sonata in F major for Violin and Piano The Grasshopper (1917 version — Authorised Original Version) [26:20]
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Sonata in F major for Viola and Piano Colleen (1919) [40:02]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin and viola); Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales, 25-26 August 2011
EM RECORDS EMR CD003 [67:01]
Recently I reviewed the second disc (Quilter’s piano music) from The English Music Festival stable I stole a phrase characterising that music as ‘miniature but not trivial’. In contrast the two works presented here are far from miniature and anything but trivial in aim or aspiration. How well they achieve these lofty goals is strikingly different. Since Holbrooke and Bantock were close friends, sharing common artistic and indeed spiritual goals this is both an intelligent and interesting piece of programming.
The Bantock Viola Sonata clocking in at just forty minutes must be one of the longest string sonatas in the repertoire. Not that the Holbrooke Sonata at a mere twenty six or so minutes could be termed slight. This latter performance by violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck is of the “authorised original version” as edited by Marshall-Luck himself. The question of editions here seems to be a bit of a minefield. The work itself is subtitled “The Grasshopper” but rather oddly Marshall-Luck in his liner fails to explain such a quirky title. He concentrates on the issue of the edition rather than making any comment on the work as a piece of music at all. In any event it was published in a full orchestral ‘concerto’ version and a partially simplified ‘sonata’ version. Holbrooke then bought back the rights from the publisher Ricordi and issued it under the banner of his own publishing house – the Blenheim Press – with further revisions. To quote Marshall-Luck “these changes bring the ‘Ricordi’ version in line with the composer’s revised autograph full score dated 1937…. [I have] reconstruct[ed] ‘The Grasshopper’ according to Holbrooke’s original intentions.” As I understand it this means that the Ricordi published score includes errata and passages the composer at the time wished to alter which for whatever reason were never changed. Never having heard the work before one rather has to take it on trust that the editorial choices being made are indeed the best and truest to the composer’s intentions. One last complication is that Holbrooke wrote alternate parts for certain passages depending on the concerto or sonata format. I assume Marshall-Luck has opted for the Sonata versions. Kerenza Peacock - who through her superb leadership of the excellent Pavão Quartet is proving to be a staunch advocate of English music - she recorded both versions but there was only room on the well-received Naxos disc for the concerto version. I have not heard the Naxos disc so cannot comment further. The Naxos liner by Robert Stevenson does propose a theory for the title due to the sprightly and athletic nature of the solo instrument writing. Down-right awkward would be another way of describing it.
Marshall-Luck is a fine player and one can but applaud the hard work that has gone into preparing two such demanding pieces. That being said there are passing moments of technical strain when his tone thins and intonation wavers. But the fault for this surely lies at the composer’s door who adds layer upon layer of technical complexity that rarely seems to serve the music. Given that I have an enduring weakness for English music of this period I am never quite sure why Holbrooke leaves me as cold as he does. Here, as in other works I find him stronger on gesture than content. That he had technical facility as a composer is not in doubt but too often I feel that technique is used for a kind of late-romantic generalised excess rather than tersely argued form. And so it is here; this should work better – three movements of pretty similar lengths, the proportions seem more appealing than the daunting scale of the Bantock yet repeatedly while listening to this disc I found the longer work to hold my attention far better. Too often I feel that Holbrooke seeks to clog and clutter his musical argument with spurious detail. Compare the two slow movements of the works here. Both could be characterised as being in essence simple song-like Romanzas. Bantock does just that with a touching monodic lyrical line over bardic chords or simple arpeggiation in the piano. Holbrooke, not content with having written what is actually a rather memorable melody dresses it in a very extended passage of wrist-spraining double-stops (that Marshall-Luck plays very well) and over decorated piano filigree writing. Even on an early acquaintance Bantock’s use of melodic cells to bind the work together is both more obviously apparent and successful – the impression of the Holbrooke is of a work altogether more rhapsodic and discursive. Likewise the finales; the Bantock is a rather wonderful Irish folk-inspired romp – not that he uses pre-existing tunes but rather evokes a complex web of impressions of Irish merry-making – jigs, reels, moments of maudlin reflection and general hubbub overlap and collide – its exhilarating stuff played with great aplomb. In comparison Holbrooke tries too hard to impress – this is the movement where I felt most clearly you cannot write a work that seeks to be both concerto and sonata at literally the same time and that whatever the adjustments the composer made to the solo part this is really a concerto and ought to be heard in that format before totally damning judgements are made. Again this is in no way a criticism of the players here who are passionate and impressive advocates of both works.
Bantock is a composer I rarely listen to for pure pleasure – but he is a composer I want to like more than I often do. I would count this sonata as being one of the finest chamber works of his that I have heard and so constitutes a major discovery in this its world première recording. Its success rests on Bantock exploiting the ‘limitation’ of the two instruments as a way of focusing his mind onto the form and content. Too often, when let loose on a full romantic orchestra I wonder if he was seduced by the potential for sound and colour thereby losing sight of the form. One curiosity – the Bantock sonata bears the subtitle “Colleen” which is rightly defined as being a generic/collective term for an Irish girl. I find it hard to imagine less girlish music! In contrast to the impressive control of the Bantock, Holbrooke seems to need to write in an effusive manner regardless of the scale – others I know find this more impressive than I.
A note on the recording; the venue is Nimbus’ Wyastone Concert Hall. Interestingly the production team here have chosen to place the performers slightly further back into the acoustic of the room that Nimbus often do for their own house recordings of chamber music. Overall I think this is a good choice. It allows Matthew Rickard’s heroically impressive piano playing to register with power and attractive sonority – in both works the pair of players are excellent at negotiating the numerous transitions between sections with perfect accord and musical conviction. The same is true of the sound as recorded of the viola used which belonged to the composer Gustav Holst – out of curiosity I would have been interested in knowing the maker. I’ve written before about violin players encroaching on violist’s repertoire but Marshall-Luck play it extremely well with an attractively rich tone and easy facility. As mentioned earlier the violin tone hardens and takes on a fractionally steely edge during the very highest passages – I wonder if this had anything to do with the acoustic characteristics of the hall?
A biographical note for each composer is provided by Em Marshall. The one on Holbrooke has a slip in it – one of the composer’s supporters and advocates was Lord Howard de Walden who lived at Chirk Castle in North Wales near Wrexham – not Chirke as in the liner and in neither is it anywhere near Harlech – some sixty miles by road to the west. Also, de Walden was not living in Chirk at the time of the Sonata’s original composition in 1917 (which is the basis for this recording as I understand it) so there’s a little discontinuity in the time-line. That aside, this is a well-programmed, finely played and valuable disc – qualities that could be used to define the English Music Festival itself.
Nick Barnard
A well-programmed, finely played and valuable disc – qualities that could be used to define the English Music Festival itself.