Viola Sonatas, Idylls and Bacchanals
Sir John Blackwood McEWEN (1868–1948)
Sonata for viola and piano in A minor (1941) [19:45]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883–1953)
Sonata for viola and piano (1922) [22:29]
Sir John Blackwood McEWEN (1868–1948)
Improvisations Provençales for violin and piano (1937) [23:58]
Breath o’ June for viola and piano (1913) [3:24]
Dame Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907–1994)
Sonata for viola and piano (1938) [13:45]
Gordon JACOB (1895–1984)
Sonatina for viola and piano (1949) [12:33]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905–1971)
Sonata for viola and piano (1937, revised 1953) [15:14]
Robin MILFORD (1903–1959)
Four Pieces for viola and piano (1935) [8:17]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
Fantasia on the name of BACH for viola and piano, Op. 29 (1955) [14:23]
Louise Williams (viola, violin)
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, England, 7-9 April 2011 (Bax, McEwen: Breath o’June), 5 January 2012 (McEwen: Improvisations Provençales), 8-10 April 2012 (CD2)
EM RECORDS EMR CD007-008 [69:37 + 63:13]
This double set from ‘The Spirit of England’ series on EM Records is a generous collection of English chamber works for viola and piano. Actually one of the nine scores is for violin and piano. Of the seven composers featured Bax is by far the best known composer. He has done well in the recording studio over the last few decades but far less well in the concert and recital hall. In particular Chandos, Naxos, Hyperion and Lyrita have done sterling work.
The remaining composers on the release in all probability became victims of fashion falling into neglect. There remains a steady spark of interest in British composers from the first half of the twentieth century and one hopes their torch may begin to burn brighter in years to come. I consider all the music on this release to be easily accessible, inhabiting a tonal, late-romantic style of a bygone age.
Hawick-born composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen is best known today for his Solway Symphony. My introduction to his music was from hearing three discs forming part of an incomplete Chandos set of McEwen’s string quartets played by the Chilingirian Quartet. Associated for many years with the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London McEwen is represented here by three works.
The Sonata for viola and piano in A minor from 1941, the last decade of McEwen’s life, is cast in four movements. Most notable is the lengthy opening movement tinged with a melancholy evocative of a tolling bell. The writing is variegated with uplifting episodes of joy. I did notice what felt like minor tuning problems with the viola especially in the achingly beautiful second movement. The Allegretto, Scherzo is a light and carefree romp followed by the extremely brisk and upbeat Finale suggestive of a vibrant country-dance.
Written in 1937 by McEwen at Cannes on the French Côte d'Azur the Improvisations Provençales for violin and piano has six movements, each given a descriptive title in the Provençal Occitan dialect. This is a substantial score that varies from the benign rhythms of ‘The Heavy Heart’, to the serious rather grey and apprehensive world of ‘Oouliveio’, to a rather restrained folkdance in ‘The Piper’.
Breath o’June for viola and piano, a short single movement from 1913 was composed whilst staying on the French Atlantic coast. This is certainly an attractive piece although rather uneventful in mood.
Bax, like McEwen, was also a pupil at the RAM. A student of the Gaelic language he felt an extremely strong almost obsessional connection to Celtic mythology. The three movement Viola Sonata doesn’t seem to contain any obvious Celtic references. Composed in the decade after the First World War, a period of great unrest in Ireland, the work seems more of a farewell to the idyllic ‘Celtic twilight’ of Bax’s youth. The opening has an intensely sombre atmosphere with a calmer central passage. Briskly played the central movement is weighty with a determined quality that borders on anger. Similar to the opening movement the Finale feels prosaic with a dark and discomforting feeling combined with a strong sense of yearning.
Maconchy although born in England grew up in Ireland. At the Royal College of Music (RCM) Maconchy studied with Charles Wood and Vaughan Williams later travelling to Prague for further tuition. I know Maconchy best for her set of string quartets that reveal influences of Bartók and Janácek. Here Maconchy is represented by her three movement Viola Sonata from 1938. After hearing the work several times it certainly deserves to be heard more often. The brisk and bustling opening Allegro feels resolute but the pressure eases in a slower central passage. Full of tension the Lento moderato is followed by a densely written Presto, Finale full of angry, agitated writing.
Gordon Jacob was born in 1894 in London becoming a Stanford pupil at the RCM where he met Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Bliss, Gurney and Moeran. Jacob’s strong connection with the RCM continued as he taught there himself for over forty years. Jacob’s Sonatina for viola and piano is a three movement score composed in 1949. Fresh and breezy the opening Allegro giusto feels alive and highly energetic. In the central slow movement the viola plays a tender melody over a percussive piano part that together generates a feeling of considerable tension. Marked Allegro con brio the brisk writing of the Finale feels bouncy, sprite-like and filled with energy.
Lancastrian Alan Rawsthorne was a pupil at the Royal Manchester College of Music also studying for a time in both Poland and Berlin. Today Rawsthorne is best known for his score to the 1953 film of Nicholas Monsarrat’s wartime novel The Cruel Sea. Rawsthorne’s four movement Viola Sonata was introduced in 1937. Then the score was thought lost and was rediscovered sixteen years later. As I expected from Rawsthorne this is a weighty and most intriguing score of real quality. There is a relentless character to the opening Maestoso - Molto allegro featuring music of a squally, windswept nature suffused with a strong sense of anxiety. A mad-cap romp, the Scherzo is reminiscent of a moto perpetuo and the intensely sombre Adagio feels deliberate and reminds me of a funeral march. This finely wrought work concludes with an extremely high spirited Rondo, Finale.
Robin Milford studied at the RCM under Vaughan Williams; Holst and R.O. Morris. After leaving the RCM the Oxford-born Milford became a great friend of Gerald Finzi. From my experience Milford is better known by reputation than by actual performances. Milford’s score the Four Pieces for viola and piano from 1935 is an attractive work that opens with a light and charming Air. Following on is the Musettea a traditional French dance featuring a most attractive melody. The weightier writing of the Serenade has a far more resolute quality than what has gone before and the concluding Gavot a traditional French dance feels lively and almost childlike in nature rather than courtly.
The final work on the release is by Yorkshireman Kenneth Leighton who studied at the Queen's College, Oxford. Winning a Mendelssohn Scholarship, Leighton chose to study in Rome becoming interested in the Second Viennese School and the atonal music of Luigi Dallapiccola. Leighton’s most prestigious appointment was as Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh. The Leighton score here is the Fantasia on the name of BACH for viola and piano from 1955. Cast in a single movement this has four distinct sections. Marked Adagio sostenuto the opening consists of intensely mournful writing that reminded me of the desolate sound world often heard in Shostakovich. Here the piano part is as prominent as the viola. The Allegro ritmico feels determined and forceful and is coloured by a slightly dark quality. Towards the end the music becomes more frenzied. Marked Lento the intense writing felt a touch dour. The final section a Fugue is brisk and unyielding, somewhat headstrong with real forward momentum.
Violist Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris are sterling advocates for this English chamber music repertoire. It is difficult to find fault with the quality of the playing. These are refined performances from two accomplished players of highly approachable music. In the accompanying booklet I found the rather curious notes sometimes readable, sometimes over-technical. Much more detailed notes are available on the EM Records website although I’m unsure why they were not included in the booklet. The sound quality from the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton is consistently well recorded with good balance and clarity. English music is again well served by this disc of music for viola and piano from EM Records.
English music is again well served by this disc of music for viola and piano from EM Records.