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British Works for Cello and Piano - Volume 3
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Cello Sonata in G minor Op.60 (1946) [22:36]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Cello Sonata in C major (1948) [14:37]
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Cello Sonata in A minor (1945-47) [21:50]
Paul Watkins (cello), Huw Watkins (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England, 30 October-1 November 2013
CHANDOS CHAN 10818 [59:05]

The music is the winner here. It is all too easy to lump most British music from the 20th Century into some kind of comfy-chair pastoral blandness. Paul Watkins, in the third volume of his survey of British music for Cello and Piano (see reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 2), shows how three widely differing works, written over a three year period at the end of World War II, explode that myth. Watkins is a great champion of British music and his playing throughout displays all the commitment and passion – together with a rock solid technique – that one could wish for. Of course, he is not the first to be such a determined advocate. Two of the three sonatas here — the Rawsthorne is replaced by the Ireland which Watkins performed on volume 2 of the series — were recorded for Marco Polo by Raphael Wallfisch together with pianist John York.

The disc opens with Edmund Rubbra’s serious and powerful Sonata from 1946. I like the detail that the liner lists the original dedicatees as part of each work’s listing. The Rubbra’s is William Pleeth who had served in the same regiment as Rubbra in the War. They became lifelong friends and as well as this piece Rubbra’s Soliloquy was written for Pleeth who is mainly remembered today as a founding member of the original Allegri Quartet and teacher of Jacqueline du Pré.

This is a serious piece of absolute music. The source of inspiration seems to be baroque models but not in the neo-classical sense but rather as a tribute to the purity of form and contrapuntal skill that period of music encapsulates. The Chandos recording is close and detailed with the cello just given a hint of prominence over the piano. Clearly the Watkins brothers are very used to working together and the unanimity of utterance is very impressive. One observation I would make is that Paul Watkins favours an intense, almost febrile style, that on occasion in this work seems not to chime with the element of emotional detachment there is in some pages of the work. Wallfisch is better in this regard, more inclined to use his vibrato speed as an expressive tool so when he is playing high in the tenor clef it is not always with the fast pressured vibrato Watkins mainly favours. The more recessed Marco Polo recording, with much more acoustic around both instruments does blur some of the piano’s contrapuntal writing for York – but these are all matters of degree. As I wrote right at the outset – the music is what emerges from either performance with its stature increased. Interestingly, it is Watkins who is a fraction steadier in 2nd movement Vivace flessible, but the closer recording give more bite to his playing. Both players embrace the ‘flexible’ instruction well – Wallfisch a fraction more mercurial but Watkins technically rock solid. The Finale is the most impressive movement in an already impressive work; a theme, seven [brief] variations and fugue quite superbly crafted. The skill is the way the sections merge through the arc of the work from slow preludial theme, gradually gathering speed to the Con Moto Variation 5 before slowing back to the closing Fugue marked adagio e molto sereno. This is also the movement – as liner note writer Calum MacDonald points out - which most clearly pays homage to its Baroque source of inspiration. The fugue occupies just under half of the movement – I particularly like the way Watkins pares back his tone initially – at a much slower speed than Wallfisch – so the musical material slowly grows and blossoms from a very austere beginning. Up until this point the two interpretations have been very similar albeit that Wallfisch reaches the closing fugue a full minute quicker than Watkins. I do not have a score to follow but cannot imagine this due to any musical material being cut. The final fugue shows a huge divergence. Watkins takes around 5:20 to cover the same section Wallfisch plays in under 3:00! Watkins' unit pulse hovers around 60 beats per minute with Wallfisch up at 85. Interestingly both 'work' - the Wallfisch flowing speed tricks the brain into halving the pulse to just over 40 but there is a sense of a 'modern' andante rather than the grand traditional baroque adagios that pre-dated historically informed practice. Given the way in which this piece does embrace baroque styles from a mid-20th century perspective my instinct is that Watkins' is the truer reflection of what Rubbra had in mind. I do have to repeat that I have no particular insight into the composer's mind and both are very fine performances. Overall, with this glowingly beautiful final fugue and a finer piano - in instrumental and recording not performance terms - I would consider this the version to hear. There have been other recordings on Somm, Dutton and Guild - none of which I have heard.
The central work offered here is both the latest and the shortest. Alan Rawsthorne's C major Sonata is a new work to me - but an exceptionally fine one. It is a sad indictment of musical fashion that Rawthorne's greatest works were written at a time when his brand of extended yet tonal music was deemed old-fashioned at best. So no matter how compelling works such as this one it is hard not to fear that appreciation of his music will never achieve a critical mass of popularity. Using the Proms archive as a measure of this would seem to bare out the theory. Only two works - one a film score excerpt - performed since the millennium, no symphonies ever performed at the Proms and only his two piano concertos having any degree of 'popularity' with nine and eight performance respectively - although ignoring a single outing for No.2 in 2005 you have to go back another 20 years for that concerto's previous hearing and 1967 for No.1. As an aside; while in the Proms archive I checked Rubbra too. He has had five of his eleven symphonies as well as other works performed including some in the last two decades, yet the abiding impression is another composer whose star has waned certainly as far as the BBC planners are concerned.
Yet listening to the hugely impressive Rubbra Sonata or the cogent and compelling power of Rawthorne's sub fifteen minute Sonata you have to wonder why. Do not assume from the C major heading that the latter will be a brief and breezy ride. MacDonald describes it as, "a work of close thematic integration and overwhelmingly serious import." The dedicatee of this Sonata was Anthony Pini, another exceptional British cellist who combined being a principal of various orchestras with an active chamber music career and teaching. His recording of the Elgar concerto with Van Beinum is still worthy of consideration.
If there were passages in the Rubbra where I was not certain that Watkins' high-octane playing always chimed with the essence of the work here there are no such qualms. Indeed the concentrated intensity of the writing suits the playing to perfection. From the work's opening bars there is a sense of dark and uneasy forces at work. The quality of the Chandos recording and the richly resonant Steinway D adds to air of foreboding. The storm breaks less than two minutes into the movement with much of the musical argument initially being taken by the piano. From this point on the movement is a study in distilled and focused dynamism, the solo cello riding the storm of the pianist's accompaniment. The ending comes with abrupt dismissal - this is one of those movements that 'feels' bigger than its four minute timeframe would imply. The second movement adagio is the longest section of the work, but there is little lightening of the mood. Even the central poco piu mosso returns to the struggles of the work's opening and the abiding impression is one of dark pessimism - "inconsolable sorrow" is MacDonald's term. The finale manages to break the gloom - more through a sense of energetic exercise rather than a spiritual lifting of the prevailing mood. A return to the earlier emotions is fractured by a sharply descending unison figure for both instruments. In turn this leads to a recollection of the opening material of the work. Just when it seems that cyclically the music will return to the despair where it started in the very closing bars there is at last a shift to the major and the work ends quietly on a consoling unison tonic. Formally, musically and emotionally this is an impressive and satisfying work. There have been several other recordings, usually as part of a mixed British composer recital except for the Naxos disc where it forms part of a survey of other Rawsthorne chamber works. As mentioned before, since this is my first encounter with the work I cannot comment in comparative terms - suffice to say this is a superb rendition by any standards.
The disc closes with the marvellous Moeran Cello Sonata. This was dedicated to the composer's wife and cellist Peers Coetmore. Theirs seems to have been an unusual marriage, with neither party particularly suited to the day to day mundanities of married life. But the relationship did inspire Moeran to two of his greatest late works; the Cello Concerto and this Sonata. The comparisons I made here were again with Raphael Wallfisch on Marco Polo and the seminal performance by Coetmore on Lyrita accompanied by Eric Parkin. Any keen Moeran collector will have this latter version because of its historical significance (coupled as it is to Coetmore's version of the concerto too). However, it cannot be denied that neither the performance or the recording is a match for either of the more recent versions. Coetmore's cello as recorded is rather tubby but of greater concern is the sense of effort that detracts from the essential vigour of the music. However, it is important to take on board the basic tempi Coetmore adopts. There is one passage in the finale where she adopts a much steadier speed than either Wallfisch or Watkins either of whom are much more dynamic here. However, there is an implacable build-up in her slower tempo that is very effective. Unfortunately, she no longer has the sheer technical power to crown that procession with the kind of vehement dynamic outburst that Watkins produces in his performance. It should be said that all three pianists are very fine. This is the most overtly Romantic of the three sonatas on the disc and the ardent lyrical nature of the music really does suit Watkins' style perfectly. Wallfisch's special strength lies in the ruminative and reflective passages, but he cannot match Watkins for sheer dynanism. In these later works, Moeran seems to want to create an idealised Irish sound-world fusing soulful ballads and wild jigs and reels. Returning to this work after some time it did strike me what a powerful work it is. In many ways more impressive and successful than the companion concerto.
Indeed, my abiding impression from this entire disc is of music that deserves to be much more widely known. Great praise to the Watkins brothers for producing such a convincing and enjoyable recital - I return to my opening comment underlining the extraordinary richness and diversity expressed in these three works. This is a typically polished Chandos production; detailed and rich recording in 24-bit (not SA-CD) at their favoured Potton Hall venue allied to excellent tri-lingual liner notes.
I hope that the Watkins brothers are able to continue their evangelising of these and similar works and transfer the success they have with this repertoire on disc into concert-hall performances.
Nick Barnard

Rubbra review index