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 (others)
EM RECORDS EMR CD007/8 [69:37 + 63:13]
I would associate the first disc in this two CD set of British Viola music with Lionel Tertis but the second is largely the province of later violists. John McEwen’s 1941 Viola Sonata is an attractive late work of his. His violin sonatas are more striking and exploratory but this Viola Sonata explores the Reel and aspects of melancholy well suited to the more plangent and deeper instrument. It’s a cliché that the viola accommodates such sentiments, but McEwen keeps things balanced via piano tolling, fanfare figures, dextrous folkloric fiddling, and a well calibrated mix of faster and slower music. His Improvisations Provençales were composed in 1937 and are written for the violin, the only time that Louise Williams wields the instrument on which she was first trained. There are six little sketches in a set that is strong on characterisation and Francophile watercolour. Breath o’ June is his earliest work here, written on the cusp of World War I, and it was a Tertis favourite. That violist’s recording of it is incomparable.
The final work in the first disc is the major sonata in this set, Bax’s. I can’t be sure, but listening to this performance by Williams and David Owen Norris I would be very surprised indeed had they not listened to Bax’s own recording of the sonata with Tertis. Williams and Norris take what most today will find as explosive tempi, especially as performers have tended to take their lead from the later 78rpm performance of William Primrose and Harriet Cohen; the Tertis/Bax wasn’t issued until late in the LP era. The interesting thing is that the faster the tempo, the more strikingly modernist the work sounds. No one will ever replicate Tertis’ tempo for the first movement but this new recording, more than almost any that I have heard in the digital era, certainly shows how fluid phraseology, abrupt conjunctions and restless dynamism fully do the work justice.
The second disc presents works that will be novelties for many listeners. Elizabeth Maconchy’s tersely succinct 1938 sonata is full of brittle energy, albeit often of the spare variety, and there are alternately hints of English folklore in the slow movement and Bartók in the finale. Gordon Jacob offers more fluent and elegantly turned pleasures, with an especially beautiful slow movement and a high-spirited finale which, unexpectedly, is then accompanied by contrasting melancholy and funereal tread, with piano tolling to the very end. Perhaps, not so very unexpected given the 1949 date of composition.
Alan Rawsthorne’s Sonata was written around the same time as Maconchy’s and shares some of its tensile qualities. It’s less likeable as a work, though its harmonic implications are very much more complex, and it strikes a decidedly knotty note at times. It’s testing for the viola’s intonation and it’s a testing work for a duo’s ensemble as well. It’s certainly the most intellectually demanding work in the programme, through Kenneth Leighton’s outstanding Fantasia on the name BACH is strikingly conceived. Its contrapuntal lines moves seamlessly, fluidly but rigorously throughout, and it represents one of the finest achievements of this release to bring it so imaginatively to light in so conspicuously fine a performance. One shouldn’t, however, overlook Robin Milford’s Four Pieces of 1935, with their fresh and charming lyric gifts.

Jonathan Woolf 

Lovers of British music will find this invaluable and stimulating. 

see also review by Michael Cookson

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