EM Records makes
the première recording of Ivor Gurney’s Violin Sonata in
E flat: a session report
One of the highlights of the 2011 English Music Festival was
the world première of a violin sonata. Nothing unusual about
that, you might say, except that this was the first performance
of an unpublished work written nearly a century earlier by one
of England’s greatest composers of art songs, Ivor Gurney.
The manuscript had lain undisturbed along with Gurney’s other
papers in the Gloucestershire Archives Department in Gloucester
until violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck took a look at it and decided
that this was far too fine a piece to gather dust any longer:
performance was not only possible but essential. Over several
months Rupert painstakingly edited Gurney’s manuscript, aided
by considerable input from his regular recital partner, pianist
Matthew Rickard, and they unveiled the work to the public in
2011 at Dorchester Abbey. Just over a year later, for a couple
of days at the end of September Rupert and Matthew were in the
splendid concert hall at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth to make the
first recording of the piece and I went along to eavesdrop on
some of the sessions for MusicWeb International.
I know and love many of Gurney’s songs but his chamber music
has received far less attention from musicians and this sonata
was completely new to me. It’s a big piece, lasting some thirty-five
minutes. The work, which dates from 1919, is cast in four movements:
an opening 6/8 movement, marked Più allegro; a 3/8
scherzo, marked Andante con moto; a 3/4 Lento; and
an Allegro finale, preceded by a slow introduction, in 4/4 time.
At the sessions which I attended the first and third movements
were set down. Rupert explained to me that the scherzo exists
in two versions. These are thematically similar but contain
some differences and the recording will contain the second version
of the movement, which Rupert believes to represent Gurney’s
final thoughts on the music.
Rupert, whose enthusiasm for the sonata is palpable and infectious,
showed me a photocopy of Gurney’s manuscript. This was a lot
tidier than I had expected – though there were some fairly chaotic
pages. However, one of the main editorial challenges that Rupert
faced was the almost complete absence of articulation marks
in the violin part, though, surprisingly, this is not a feature
of the piano part. Whilst this presents a challenge, it seems
to me that it also presents a great opportunity for a performer
because Rupert has been able to use his experience and intuition
to devise the most appropriate phrasing for the violin. He and
Matthew also have the excitement – and responsibility – of taking
the first steps in establishing a performance tradition for
the work. It will be interesting to see what other musicians
may make of the piece in due course if, as we must hope, Rupert’s
performing edition is published.
Though he wasn’t a violinist himself Gurney was clearly attracted
to composition for the instrument and I learned from Rupert
that he composed no fewer than six sonatas for violin and piano
though the E flat piece is the only one he completed. In his
book The ordeal of Ivor Gurney composer Michael
Hurd refers to three sonatas – all student works – on which
Gurney worked in 1910 alone. Hurd indicates that most of the
movements in these three sonatas begin well but then run out
of steam. Based on what I heard during these sessions that’s
definitely not a criticism that could be levelled at the E flat
Knowing that the sonata was composed in 1919, around the time
that he studied with Vaughan Williams, I had half-expected a
work of some turbulence in the wake of Gurney’s experiences
in the trenches. However, the music, though very intense, contains
no angst. I had an interesting conversation with composer
Ian Venables, who was present while the first movement was being
recorded. He pointed out that the angst in Gurney’s
creative art comes out in his poetry rather than in his music.
Was this one reason, I wonder, why he set so few of his own
words to music?
The first movement, which plays for some eleven minutes, contains
some wonderful music. Much of it is lyrical and I was struck
by the fact that the violin writing has the instrument singing
at all times; Gurney was not a great song composer for nothing!
He writes with great assurance. The piano writing is often bass-rich
but, thanks to the sensitive playing of Matthew Rickard, the
violin never sounded swamped. When I listened from inside the
concert hall itself for both complete takes of the movement,
I sat about two-thirds of the way back in the stalls. There
are several passages of remarkable stillness in the music, to
which Rupert and Matthew brought a particularly strong sense
of atmosphere. After one initial take of the complete movement
the musicians went through virtually the whole score, painstakingly
recording patching passages just in case of need. The firm intention
is to issue as near as possible to a complete performance of
each movement. However, when you’re recording a piece - and
especially when you’re making its first-ever recording – there’s
a huge responsibility associated with creating a document that
is as perfect as possible. In all this crucial patching work
Rupert and Matthew were guided by producer/engineer, Richard
Bland with whom they’ve worked on several previous projects.
I sat next to Richard in the control room for most of the time
and I was amazed at the acuteness and musicality of his ear
as he picked up even the slightest imperfection. This patching
work was incredibly detailed and painstaking yet it was all
done without any sign of frustration or impatience; everyone
was determined to get everything right. One noticeable thing
was that every time Richard asked the players to repeat a section
they just dropped into it effortlessly at the right tempo and
with the right amount of feeling. It wasn’t until 3.30 pm –
after nearly five hours of recording – that the players began
to play a section and stopped because the tempo wasn’t quite
right; that’s a great feat of concentration.
After all this detailed work Rupert and Matthew played through
the whole first movement one more time. They must have been
a bit tired by now after some three hours of concentrated work,
but there was something very special about the atmosphere of
this performance, which seemed flawless to my ears. I strongly
suspect that we will hear most of this take on the CD when it
is issued. Ian Venables sat next to me during this final take.
He’s a Gurney devotee and he’d attended the first performance
of the work last year. He was thrilled by the even greater depth
and expansiveness that Rupert and Matthew have brought to their
performance of the music since then.
After a short lunch-break attention turned to the slow movement.
This is another extended structure, lasting some 10 ½ minutes.
It opens with a soulful, long-breathed melody for the violin
that encompasses some fourteen bars. Here is Gurney’s touching
melancholy writ large. The music, as it unfolds, has a marvellously
rhapsodic flow though there are several very ardent passages
also. The writing exploits particularly effectively and eloquently
the lower register of the violin though Gurney is also far from
averse to letting his soloist soar. As in the first movement,
the violin sings consistently. I loved this music and I thought
that Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard invested it with
great poetic feeling.
It will be interesting to see how the finished recording sounds.
The Wyastone Concert Hall is a fine one though the acoustic
is quite generous when only a couple of musicians are playing
without an audience and gives back quite a lot of sound. Richard
Bland deployed a pair of DPA 4006 microphones as his main rig
with four or five spot microphones just to touch in small bits
of background detail. Heard over the monitoring speakers in
the control room the results sounded warm, well-balanced, clear
and vivid and gave an accurate report of what I heard on the
occasions when I sat in the hall to listen.
After I left the team was due to set down the remainder of the
Gurney sonata. The following day was to be devoted mainly to
the Elgar Sonata in E minor, which is also to be included on
the CD. This, it seems to me, is a shrewd choice in several
ways. For one thing it’s almost exactly contemporary with the
Gurney – Elgar’s work was written in 1918 – though it seems
to me that the Elgar piece, which is the work of a much older
man, is significantly more autumnal than what I’ve heard of
Gurney’s. Furthermore, Gurney was a huge admirer of Elgar’s
music and one can imagine his pleasure at the prospect of his
sonata being coupled with Elgar’s. To complete the disc Rupert
Marshall-Luck is to play the short Soliloquy for solo
violin by Lionel Sainsbury (b. 1958). This is a much more recent
piece, which was premièred in 1998. It will be fascinating to
see how Sainsbury’s piece fits with the music of composers of
an earlier generation.
The disc is due out from EM Records in January next year and
I’m eager to hear the finished product.
It’s a busy time for Em Marshall-Luck’s enterprising label.
In the first week of October they have sessions for a disc of
music by John Gardner (1917-2011). Too little of Gardner’s music
has made it onto disc but a recording of some of his orchestral
works a few years ago (review)
whetted my appetite for more. The new disc is to include première
recordings of Gardner’s Organ Concerto and his A Cantata
for Christmas. This will be another disc to look out for