English Violin Sonatas
Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946)
Violin Sonata in F op.50 (1918) [29:47]
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Violin Sonata no.3 in C (1940) [19:53]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Violin Sonata no.1 in D op.11 (1880) [24:59]
Susanne Stanzeleit (violin), Gusztáv Fenyň (piano)
rec. 1994, St. Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
REGIS RRC1376 [75:34]
The sonatas on this disc range over sixty years, with a world war separating each from the other and the earliest placed last. Despite the somewhat random selection, this remains a useful trio of “English Violin Sonatas”. The inverted commas are necessary since the work by the Dubliner Stanford is not English at all but Irish, and sounds it at least sometimes. A small point on the inter-planetary scale, no doubt, but one over which battles have been fought and bombs thrown, so maybe next time Regis will be a little more careful over Irish susceptibilities.
Stanford was inclined from the first to compose works in contrasted couples, and his earliest published chamber works were a sonata each for cello – op.9 – and violin. The cello sonata is an ambitiously structured work with slow introductions to both outer movements – that to the finale substituting the slow movement, of which there is none as such. The themes of these introductions are then drawn into the body of the following movements, making a bold and quite unusual scheme. The only recording of this sonata so far is on Meridian CDE 84482 where it is played by Alison Moncrieff Kelly (cello) and the undersigned. It has been reviewed for MusicWeb International by Jonathan Woolf.
The violin sonata is, on the face of it, a more straightforwardly classical affair, with outer movements in sonata form and the middle movement a set of variations. However, signs of individuality keep creeping in. The themes of the first movement have a way of starting as if derived from classical models – the hammering octaves at the beginning, for example – and then tapering off into Irish-sounding pendants. The slow movement theme, too, starts like a hymn but its second period has a very folksy close. The darker, minor-key variation looks ahead to Stanford’s epic-Celtic vein. The finale begins in the minor key then immediately slips into the major, retaining a certain major-minor ambivalence throughout. Above all, we have an early example of Stanford providing a middle section for a sonata-form movement that is not a development but a new idea, which then reappears at the close. Strikingly, this new idea is in the distant key of D flat. Most engagingly, there is a feeling that continental forms are being treated with a degree of Irish blarney. On the whole, the work is an advance on the slightly earlier cello sonata.
The present recording was the first to be made. Though I always try to snap up every major Stanford issue, this is one I didn’t manage to get first time round. I must say that the thoughts above are particularly prompted by hearing it now. It confirms my feeling that the performance by Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards (Hyperion CDA67024) was not ideal.
Stanzeleit and Fenyň take longer over each movement. In the first movement, though, the difference of nearly three minutes is due to the fact that they play the exposition repeat, which Barritt and Edwards omit. Stanzeleit and Fenyň are actually faster and the music flows more joyously from them. In maturer Stanford a broad tempo can often be an advantage, but Barritt and Edwards make the music seem over-emphatic and ultimately laboured. Strangely, the movement seems too long from the Hyperion team, which it does not on the present disc, in spite of there being more of it.
Stanzeleit and Fenyň get a more folk-inspired tone in the second movement, where Barritt and Edwards emphasize the hymn-like aspects. The Regis partners mine a vein of poetry, especially in the last pages, which passes the other pair by. In the finale Barritt and Edwards have a wider range of tempi. The new theme in D flat is beautifully handled in itself, but the music comes to a standstill whereas Stanzeleit and Fenyň are able to make it relax without holding up the flow. From them, the music soars irrepressibly to its conclusion.
At least, I think it does. Unfortunately my copy – not a review copy but one I paid good money for while passing through London last August – gets stuck around 4:29 of the finale. This on two CD players and a computer. I even tried ripping the track into my computer. All this achieved was that I could get past the damaged section – the blip is visible to the naked eye – and enjoy the last minute or so of the performance. It is to be hoped that I have the only rogue copy – it also had the minor irritation of a broken spider inside the cellophane wrapping – but if, like me, you tend to buy discs and put them aside for a rainy day some months hence, then make a point of checking this one immediately.
The recording is the one aspect where the Hyperion disc is superior, though not by much. The church acoustic here is a bit too swimmy but you quickly get used to it and it certainly wouldn’t affect my strong preference for the Regis performance, if only I could hear it properly.
Richard Whitehouse in his generally helpful notes states that Stanford left four violin sonatas. Yes and no. Apart from the two numbered ones – the second is also included on Barritt’s disc – Stanford wrote, late in life (1919), two “Sonatas for violin with piano accompaniment”, op.165. He specifically did not number them “Sonatas 3 and 4” since he regarded them as a different genre. According to Porte (Sir Charles Stanford, Kegan Paul, 1921), they “are expressly violin soli, with the piano as accompanying instrument in much the same way as it acts for songs, and may be viewed as distinct from the more usual sonatas for violin and pianoforte duet”. How this actually worked in practice is something we may never know since, despite a performance of no.2 at the Wigmore Hall in 1919 by Murray Lambert and Hamilton Harty, the sonatas were not published and, unless there has been good news since Dibble and Rodmell published their books on Stanford in 2002, the manuscripts have not been traced.
I have collected quite a bit of Dunhill piano music in second-hand shops over the years, most of it neatly written educational pieces but a few that could be considered for concert use. Neither these, nor some attractive songs, nor even the warm-hearted Phantasy Suite for clarinet and piano, which gets an occasional airing, prepared me for the riches offered by the present violin sonata. The language is conservative, but by adding a considerable use of augmented chords to a basically Stanfordian harmonic armoury, Dunhill gives the music a French twist. Listening blind, I think you would guess the composer to be a highly gifted follower of Fauré.
The first movement wafts in, like the Franck sonata and so many French pieces under its spell, as a bittersweet Proustian memory of lost time. But, as so often in Fauré, a gently innocent theme quickly proves capable of passionate heights, though in a very civilized sort of way. The second subject is equally malleable and Dunhill effortlessly sustains interest throughout the considerable length (11:24). A wonderful discovery.
The following “Adagio lamentoso” requires, but repays, intense concentration, its drum-taps reminding us that it was conceived at the end of a horrifying war. The finale is all gushing exuberance. Is it a notch less inspired than the other two? At times I felt I was listening with sympathetic admiration, because the previous movements had been so good, rather than total transport. It is a problem with similar French works, even Fauré himself, that soaring enthusiasm begins to pall in large doses. But I already found myself more engaged on a second hearing, so maybe time will alter my response. In any case, a sonata with a first movement like this cannot be ignored.
The performance sounds ideal. In particular, Stanzeleit judges her portamenti perfectly, so that they provide warmth without becoming soupy. Fenyň is a warm-toned partner. Here the church acoustic may be an asset.
Compared with the sumptuous tone poems that Bantock’s admirers have been enjoying on disc, his late third violin sonata is a spare, restrained work. I was only moderately engaged by it, though it is nevertheless always agreeable. Although the first movement is marked “Allegro con spirito” and the second “Lento sostenuto”, in practice they sound too similar. Only the lively, sometimes humorous, finale offers real contrast. The first movement seems to make considerable use of a motif from Bantock’s once popular “Song to the Seals”. I am left wondering if this is deliberate or whether it is a symptom that Bantock was by then revamping characteristic turns of phrase rather uncritically. Bantock was a sufficiently major figure for it to be desirable to have even his lesser works accessible, especially when so well played. I can’t help thinking, though, that anyone who buys the disc for Bantock will actually find much more of what he wants in the Dunhill.
The Stanford and Dunhill, at least, deserve to be heard well beyond the confines of the usual British music enthusiasts. With such fine playing, do not hesitate if you like late romantic violin sonatas wherever they come from. Just check your copy.
Christopher Howell
The Dunhill is a wonderful discovery and the Stanford is the best of the two performances now available.