RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat major (1918/19) [34:38]
Lionel SAINSBURY (b. 1958) Soliloquy for Solo Violin, Op. 21 (1993) [7:24]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 82 (1918) [26:22]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)/Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. 28-29 September 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth. DDD
EM RECORDS EMR CD011[68:31]
I had the good fortune to attend much of the first day of recording sessions for this disc. As I noted in my session report, during the time that I was there the first and third movements of the Gurney Sonata were set down. Hearing the music then for the first time made a very strong impression on me and I’ve since been waiting impatiently to hear the complete work in its world premičre recording.
Some four months later it’s been a marvellous experience to hear again the two movements of Gurney’s sonata and to experience for the first time the short scherzo and the finale. I don’t mean to diminish those two movements, which contain some excellent invention, but I feel I heard the very best music in the sonata that day at Monmouth. One thing that I am in a position to do is to assure potential purchasers of this disc that the recording by Richard Bland offers a very truthful presentation of what I heard when seated in the Wyastone Concert Hall that day. His clear and very natural recording balances the two instruments perfectly and gives just the right amount of space around the sound that the performers produced.
Gurney’s sonata was written between August 1918 and September 1919 so much of it was penned during the time that he was able to resume his studies at the Royal College of Music where he came under the tutelage of Vaughan Williams. It was just one of six violin sonatas that Gurney began at various times but this was the only one that he completed. Knowing when the music was written, not long after Gurney’s life-changing experiences in the trenches of Flanders, I went to the recording session half-expecting troubled, turbulent music but, in fact, though there’s much intensity in the music angst is not really apparent. In his excellent and very thorough note on the music Rupert Marshall-Luck refers to the “dramatic breadth and sweep” of the piece and draws attention to “the wide-ranging contours (of the music) recalling in their outlines the undulations of Gurney’s beloved Gloucestershire hills.” I think that judgement is spot-on.
The manuscript of the sonata is in the Gloucestershire County Archives in Gloucester. It was the composer, Ian Venables, who is also Chairman of the Ivor Gurney Trust, who first put Rupert Marshall-Luck onto the existence of the manuscript. He edited the score for performance and he and Matthew Rickard gave the world premičre at the English Music Festival on 30 May 2012.
The first movement opens with an easy flow though already there are traces of wistfulness. Soon the music becomes confidently romantic, the violin writing having a particularly lyrical sweep. At 3:22 there’s a short ruminative episode, the first of several, but the surging lyrical writing soon resumes. Gurney’s music is most attractive, engaging and skilfully argued. My ear was caught by a bewitching brief moment of stillness (6:09 – 6:31) out of which the flowing principal idea re-emerges with wonderful naturalness. This movement is a delight and tremendously convincing. The conviction is the result not just of Gurney’s inspiration and craftsmanship but also stems from the skill of the performers. Rupert Marshall-Luck’s violin soars effortlessly and his tone is warm, drawing the listener in, while Matthew Rickard is an exemplary partner.
The Scherzo, which is offered in Gurney’s second version, is brief. Indeed, I hadn’t realised previously just how short it is – it plays for 2:43. Though it is entitled ‘Scherzo’ the tempo marking is not swift: it’s Andante con moto. The music is unusual in that for quite a lot of the time the violin plays pizzicato and is thereby cast almost in a subsidiary role to the piano. We learn from the notes that in the original version the roles were reversed with the violin assigned the melodic line and the piano playing staccato notes; it would have been interesting to hear this as an appendix though I appreciate that Marshall-Luck takes the view that the version played here represents Gurney’s final thoughts. He sees this miniature movement as “a large-scale dominant anacrusis” to the substantial Lento that follows – one of several unifying devices that he identifies which bind together the structure of the sonata. This slow movement impressed me hugely at the recording sessions. It was the last of the four movements to be written. It opens with an extended, expansive violin melody. This beautiful tune seems suffused with nostalgic melancholy. It sets the tone for a movement that depends on long-breathed melodic flow. It’s a very lovely creation at which all who love Gurney’s songs will surely thrill. Throughout its eleven-minute span Gurney sustains his invention and holds the listener’s attention. The performance could hardly be bettered: both musicians play with fine feeling and sensitivity and truly bring out the poetry behind the notes.
In another structural link the finale begins with a slow, ruminative introduction which is rooted in the movement we’ve just heard. The main Allegro begins after a brief pause (1:10) and its initial turn of phrase will strike a chord with those who know the songs. It seems to me that this is music of the open-air – one is reminded of Rupert Marshall-Luck’s prescient comment linking the music with the topography of Gurney’s native county. In this movement – and indeed throughout the sonata – Gurney displays a natural affinity with the violin, favouring the instrument with long, singing lines. This movement makes a very satisfying conclusion to a fine sonata.
Having now heard the complete piece I consider that this Gurney sonata constitutes a very significant addition to the repertoire. I do hope other artists will take up the work and in that connection it’s excellent news that Rupert Marshall-Luck’s edition of the sonata is being published by E M Publications and I expect that details will appear soon on the website. The other important function that this recording fulfils is to open another window for those of us who, to date, have known Ivor Gurney only through his wonderful, evocative songs and poetry. The sonata receives the best possible advocacy in this splendid and dedicated performance.
Lionel Sainsbury’s Soliloquy for Solo Violin was completely new to me. It’s an impressive work that mixes rhetorical, declamatory passages with stretches of more private, confiding music. It packs a lot into a short time span, both technically and in terms of musical content. I found that it grabbed my attention from the opening rhetorical flourish and sustained it thereafter. Mind you, I’m sure that was also due in no small measure to the bravura playing of Rupert Marshall-Luck. I must seek out Sainsbury’s Violin Concerto (review) without delay.
In some ways the Elgar Sonata, one of his trio of late chamber works, needs less introduction than do the other pieces on this disc. Yet despite the advocacy of several fine players down the years, not least Hugh Bean (review) I still feel that it’s undervalued. It was composed in 1918 and so is contemporaneous with the Gurney; that, together with Gurney’s admiration for Elgar’s music, makes the coupling highly appropriate.
Elgar’s first movement contains a good deal of harmonic and emotional turbulence though there are also passages where the tone is gentler and nostalgic. Marshall-Luck and Rickard display both passion and poise in a deeply-felt reading. The opening and closing pages of the second movement, entitled ‘Romance’, are elusive and strange. We hear little fragments of music and there are several hesitations; one is never quite sure where the music may lead next, especially at the beginning. At 4:24, in the midst of the movingly eloquent central section, Elgar quotes briefly the ‘Committal’ theme from Gerontius, something I’d never realised until reading the notes. I think that the players are perhaps at their best in this central section but overall theirs is a highly distinguished account of this movement in which I think they capture its spirit. Though on the surface the music of the finale is rather more outgoing than that of the previous movement one has the impression that Elgar never quite throws off the shackles of melancholy. The music seems troubled and unable to settle. There’s a reminiscence of the slow movement – shades of the Cello Concerto! – before the music gathers itself for what appears to be a positive, outgoing conclusion. However, Rupert Marshall-Luck is surely right to suggest in his notes that this is rather forced.
The performances of all three works on this disc are out of the top drawer. If attention focuses, understandably, on the Gurney discovery that should not overshadow either of the other two works or of the respective performances of them. As I’ve indicated already, the recorded sound is excellent. As usual with this label the documentation is excellent: Rupert Marshall-Luck writes knowledgeably and with enthusiasm about the music itself while Andrew Neill of the Elgar Society and Ian Venables contribute notes on Elgar and Gurney respectively, which both are eminently qualified to do.
EM Records has already issued several excellent and important discs of neglected English music. However, this disc, which unveils Gurney’s Violin Sonata to a worldwide audience, may be their most important release to date, I fancy.
An important disc which unveils Ivor Gurney’s Violin Sonata to a worldwide audience.
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