My colleague John Quinn has already reviewed
this set in excellent fashion, drawing attention to world premiere recordings; the early B minor sonata of 1911, the restored original version of the Second Sonata, and the three smaller pieces. Thus this set contextualises Howells’ violin works as never before, and for that reason alone it will be an important addition to the shelves of admirers of the composer and of British violin works of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Having thus opened with my conclusion, it’s time to backtrack, and briefly offer a few thoughts as something of a footnote to JQ’s review.
The B minor sonata was given what’s believed to be its first official performance by these performers in 2013 and this is its premiere recording. It’s writ large, broadly conceived, ripely romantic, as befits an 18 year old, with an elastic rhythmic sense offering opportunities for rubati from Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard. The bristly, almost resinous quality of the agitato section in the middle of the first movement is very well conveyed, and the ensuing rich piano chording and soliloquies for the two instruments are finely integrated. They could easily, in less thoughtful hands, rather fall apart. Gerontius
haunts the slow movement as elements from Elgar’s Violin Concerto had in the opening. Chime-like passages for the piano add textual colour. The finale is almost as broadly conceived as the opening movement and if its fluctuations never quite convince, they are finely projected here and the advocacy of the two performers cannot be faulted. Incidentally the duo has also recorded the opening of this sonata in its original version (it lasts 1:33), so if you programme it appropriately you can hear Howells’ first thoughts.
The world premiere of the Sonata No.2 in its restored version flows with great sympathy. This duo isn’t afraid to play quietly and certainly isn’t afraid to risk slower tempi than one might otherwise expect. The four-movement span of this 1917 sonata differs from the three-movement schema with which one is familiar. Howells withdrew even after relatively successful critical comments but here the third-movement scherzo is restored. The work’s Delian qualities are not downplayed, nor are the perky pizzicati in the restored Allegro moderato
denied their extrovert quality.
The First Sonata, which was written a year after the one numbered No.2 also evokes Delius and its high point in this recording is the sweetly intense tone, rapt and concentrated, that Marshall-Luck produces in the second, slow movement. He has unfailingly located the apex of the sonata’s expressive heart, and sustains the mood in the finale’s opening where Howells takes the violin up high. The Third Sonata followed in 1923 and once again it’s the music’s poetic core that generates the most rapt playing from both players, and that means the long stretches of the finale. Neither man overlooks the uneasy quality of the music, as it charts a restless course between agitation and repose. In both these sonatas, Nos. 1 and 3, the duo take tempi that proved amenable to Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards in their single-disc Hyperion disc [CDA66665
; now on Helios CHH55139] with the exception that the Hyperion pair are a notch faster, especially in the case of the slow movement of No.1. The smaller pieces are not to be overlooked. Of them, the Cradle Song
is the most arresting, a really rather remarkable little gem – a gorgeous lullaby. You may encounter echoes of The Lark Ascending
in the first of the Three Pieces.
Given that I started with my final paragraph, I should add that there is a 21-page booklet written by Paul Spicer and Marshall-Luck full of pertinent commentary and that the recording is fully sympathetic to the performances.
Previous review: John