This intriguing conjunction of works and composers does not necessarily denote inter-connections, nor indeed imply any direct kind of lineage. In fact that would be hard to propound given the fifty-year span between Elgar’s sole work in the medium and English composer Philip Sawyer’s Violin Sonata No.1. However it does provide a piece of programming by which an established late-Romantic work offers anchored support to two works that are, presumably, making their debuts on disc - the Second Sonata was certainly premiered in concert by these forces.
Elgar’s Sonata runs the expressive gamut from intimate to concertante and it has the performances on disc to match. The Steinberg Duo are Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns, a married couple (Stonehill’s family name was originally Steinberg). They present a very emphatically characterised performance that interests on several fronts. At first listen I was very disturbed by Stonehill’s rather slithery approach to passages in the opening movement. Listening several more times I feel she has imbued her performance with the kind of period expressive features that would have been the norm at the time of the work’s first performances - features indeed that should always be a part of a musician’s arsenal, but so often aren’t. The duo’s approach to dynamics - notably diminuendi - is very fine, and the characterisation of certain significant paragraphs, often in the piano, equally so; I was especially taken by the element of foreboding that Burns finds in the first movement, for instance. Yet the approach is also rather heedless of the sequential writing which often sounds predictable and ungainly. This is a slight weakness in the sonata but the best duos mitigate it. Additionally I felt that rubati were not really flexible enough and that portamenti were inconsistently applied. But the point of view, even if technically certainly not beyond reproach, remains diverting. The blanched white violin tone in the slow movement, for example, is worthy of note. The Marie Joshua reminiscence toward the end of the finale unfortunately goes for little here, contrasts not having earlier been properly established. There is, true, earlier a real sense of being bereft, but it comes at the expense of architecture.
Philip Sawyers’ First Sonata was written in 1969. Originally written for viola it was soon after transcribed for the smaller instrument, an occasion that has served it well. There is much that is tersely resinous and driving, and much that contrasts strongly in its frank but never insipid lyricism. The result is strongly etched music-making, paragraphal and convincing, sounding briefly akin to Bartók, or even Szymanowski in places. Sawyers knows precisely how to craft an austerely beautiful slow movement though the piano line is cautionary, chordally, which leads to a tense exchange before a joint, ultimately triumphant rapprochement that ushers in an exciting finale. Over forty years separate his two violin sonatas, the Second dating from 2011, nearly a century after the Elgar was composed. There are hints of folk fiddling in the opening toccata-like Allegro
of the work, which is to recur later in the movement. Intense and urgent, the slow movement is powerfully persuasive and reveals again just how consummate he has remained in projecting slow movements. In every respect this sonata is quite as effective as the first, but it perhaps exceeds it in one important respect: it seems beholden stylistically to no obvious external influence.
The two Sawyers sonatas make a valuable contribution to the repertoire, and I hope that these very idiomatic-sounding traversals will stimulate other duos to accept the challenges and rewards that they offer.
Previous reviews: John France
and Brian Wilson