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Philip SAWYERS (b.1951)
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1969) [13:46]
Violin Sonata No. 2 (2011) [21:05]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Sonata in e minor, Op.82 (1918) [26:46]
Steinberg Duo (Louisa Stonehill (violin) and Nicholas Burns (piano))
rec. Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada, January 2013. DDD.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6240 [61:37]

This is the second time in a week that I’ve reviewed a recording as a download and liked it without being over the moon, then listened to the CD equivalent and been more enthusiastic. I don’t think that it has anything to do with any inherent superiority of the physical disc. Although this Nimbus CD sounds very well, so does the download from classicsonline.com, even if the latter is in mp3 only, albeit at the highest bit-rate.
 
In the other case, Handel’s Water Music (BIS-SACD-2027) I was comparing a 24-bit download with the stereo SACD tracks, so the download, with DAC at the correct setting, is theoretically superior to the disc. The lesson is an old one - never judge a book by its cover or a recording on first or even second hearing.
 
This is an odd pairing on the face of it, especially when we are not short of fine versions of the Elgar, more logically coupled - with Finzi and Walton, for example, on another Nimbus CD (NI5666: Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan- review). Either way it’s a win-win situation for Nimbus, but you may well prefer the coupling on that earlier recording.
 
If you buy the new recording for the sake of the Elgar but are apprehensive about the two Sawyers sonatas, fearing some avant-garde onslaught, let me set your fears aside. I doubt whether Elgar would have had any problems relating to the music, which is attractive - often dramatic but never strident. If I didn’t know the dates of these two sonatas, I wouldn’t have guessed anything later than 1940. The notes in the booklet acknowledge that Sawyers’ music is as unfashionable as Elgar’s was in 1918 - ‘(nothing) violently chromatic or cubist’, the latter commented to Marie Joseph. I originally thought myself unlikely to choose to listen to either of the newer works very often, but re-hearing has made me revise my opinion.
 
Nicholas Barnard made an earlier Nimbus Alliance recording of the music of Philip Sawyers a Recording of the Month - review - and while I wouldn’t go that far in the case of the new recording, these two Violin Sonatas have certainly grown on me at least to the extent that I can endorse William Hedley’s view of his music on that earlier CD as ‘gratifying to listen to’ - review.
 
If you want to decide for yourself, the Steinberg Duo’s performance of the first sonata can be seen and heard on YouTube - here - and their Canadian premiere of the second sonata - here. Their Elgar is here. Having seen and heard those live performances on YouTube, as I said in my review of the download, I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t under-estimated Sawyers’ music. I do urge you to try it for yourself on YouTube or from Naxos Music Library if you can; it’s not just the extra frisson that comes with a live performance, since rehearing on CD has helped further my reappraisal.
 
For all that I’ve said about Sawyers’ music sounding more like the product of an earlier time, there’s no mistaking the voice of Elgar and the intensity of his sonata from the very beginning of track 7. It was a wise decision to place his music last; otherwise it would have overshadowed anything that came after, especially as the Steinberg Duo give it an intense performance. They might have lingered a little longer over the second movement Romance and given a shade more impetus to the finale but those are my only serious reservations.
 
The Steinberg Duo linger longer than most over parts of that finale, taking 10:11 overall as against 9:25 from the youthful Nigel Kennedy, with Peter Pettinger (Chandos CHAN8380, CD or download from theclassicalshop.net, mp3 or lossless). That is a performance which still holds its full price with some justification and deserves its choice as part of the Chandos Milestones box set in 2009 - review. (Out of stock on CD and never released for download.)
 
Kennedy’s performance is undeniably exciting, without unduly ignoring the second part of the tempo marking allegro non troppo, but you may feel that the Steinbergs come closer to Elgar’s own description of the movement as ‘broad and soothing’ and to capturing the ‘awful shadow’ of the First World War and his own poor health which he felt hanging over him at the time. Hope and Mulligan on the earlier Nimbus recording are even faster here (8:52), as are the members of the Nash Ensemble, Marcia Crayford and Ian Brown, on a budget-price Hyperion Helios recording: 8:48 according to the booklet but actually 9:01.
 
On a Channel Classics recording of Elgar, Sibelius and Grieg (CC72171 - Recording of the Month- review) Isabelle van Keulen and Robert Brautigam take the finale fastest of all the versions which I’ve sampled, at 8:05. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can try out both of the Nimbus recordings, the Chandos and the Channel Classics, and all four can be downloaded from classicsonline.com - but bear in mind that the two Nimbus recordings are available on CD at competitive prices from MusicWeb International - here.
 
There’s an almost bewildering and competitive array of recordings of the Elgar sonata and the new Nimbus Alliance recording is a strong contender, especially if you prefer a broader tempo in the finale for the reasons I have given.
 
If forced to choose a desert island recording, however, despite the blandishments of all these fine offerings, I’d go for that Hyperion Helios recording on which the Nash Ensemble also play the Piano Quintet - an ideal coupling, with the Quintet dating from less than a year later and in very similar mood. The quality of the performances and recording and the budget price are powerful arguments for this version (CDH55301 from Hyperion: CD, mp3 and lossless downloads, with pdf booklet). I don’t find the account of the finale at all inconsistent with Elgar’s own description and the booklet, for all that this is a budget reissue, is even more informative than the Nimbus. There’s strong competition in the Quintet from another, full-price, Hyperion recording - I compared the two in July 2011/2 - but if the coupling appeals, I repeat my advice to go for the lower-priced version.
 
The new recording was made not in Nimbus’s own studies at Wyastone Leys but in Canada, using the facilities of the Film and Music Programs at the Banff Centre; this is one of the albums which they release under licence on the Nimbus Alliance label. It is, however, well up to Nimbus’s high standards and I don’t think it’s mere imagination that the CD sound is superior to the download, good as that is.
 
Listening to so many recordings of the Elgar Violin Sonata has reminded me what a wonderful work it is. Any lover of Elgar’s music and/or of the chamber repertoire in general who doesn’t have a recording of it would be well served by any of the ones that I have listed but if you can’t resist sampling Philip Sawyers’ music, which I have come to enjoy more with every repeated hearing, it has to be the new Nimbus Alliance version.
 
Brian Wilson 

Previous review: John France



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