EM Records makes the premičre 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 premičre 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 Nothing unusual about that, you might say, except that this was the first performance of an unpublished work written nearly a century earlier by one of England’s greatest composers of art songs, Ivor Gurney.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 Piů 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 sonata.
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 ˝ 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 premičred 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 premičre recordings of Gardner’s Organ Concerto and his A Cantata for Christmas. This will be another disc to look out for very shortly.
Em Records Website