Francis POTT (b.1957)
Sonata for Viola and Piano, Tooryn Vannin (The Towers of Man) (2013) [30:03]
Einzige Tage, Nine settings of poems by Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak (2010) [43:03]
Yuko Inoue (viola), Francis Pott (piano)
Alla Kravchuk (soprano), Simon Phillips (piano)
rec. 2014, Auditorium, Anniversary Hall, St Catherine’s School, Bramley, Surrey EM RECORDS EMRCD028 [73:06]
I’ve encountered and greatly admired quite a lot of music by Francis Pott in the last few years. My exploration has included his vast organ symphony, Christus (review) and his equally imposing choral work, The Cloud of Unknowing (review). I’ve also heard a good number of his smaller-scale choral pieces, either as individual items in mixed programmes or on a couple of discs devoted entirely to his works (review ~ review). However, I’ve not had any opportunities to investigate his secular output until now.
The Viola Sonata was inspired by Pott’s visit to a couple of man-made landmarks on the coast of the Isle of Man. These are two towers constructed at different times in the nineteenth century by prominent Manxmen. So far as I know the towers have no connection with each other – or, rather, they had no connection until they inspired Francis Pott.
The Sonata is a fine, arresting work and it strikes me as sitting very firmly in the tradition of Romantic English chamber music that was established in the last century. The composer describes the first subject of the opening movement as “unrepentantly romantic”. The music surges passionately and the line given to the viola seems to me to suit the instrument’s husky tone extremely well. Though the music is in the English tradition it is not backward-looking; instead the piece restlessly explores keys and interesting contemporary harmonies. It’s big, surging, assertive music with a very strong melodic vein and the sonata is thus perfectly launched.
The middle movement is reflective and melancholy. This is inspired by a tower built by one Thomas Corrin. It its upper room he was wont to sit for long periods, reading, following the death of his wife and two infant children. The melancholy tone of the viola is ideally suited to this regretful reflection. Between 5:16 and 7:40 the rumination is broken by what Pott terms a “serene scherzo”. Here the music dances lightly and one wonders if it depicts Corrin calling to mind more carefree times. However, the main reflective thrust of the movement soon reasserts itself and perhaps the strong climax that follows suggests Corrin raging against the loss of a happier existence. After this climax the music assumes a calmer air – his acceptance, perhaps – which is maintained to the end.
In the finale Pott wraps things up by basing the movement on thematic elements from the preceding movements. There’s a considerable amount of drive and energy in this movement though there is a brief digression (6:20-7:09) when the melancholy of the slow movement is recalled. Then the sonata is driven to an urgent, propulsive conclusion.
This is a very fine composition which I believe is a significant addition to the English chamber repertoire. Yuko Inoue and Francis Pott give the sonata passionate advocacy.
Simon Phillips, who is the highly accomplished pianist in the recording of Einzige Tage (‘Unique Days’) is a longstanding close friend of Francis Pott. His wife commissioned these songs to mark Phillips’ fiftieth birthday. To further the family connection Mrs Phillips is sister-in-law to Alla Kravchuk, who at the time the songs were written was a principal soprano at the Hanover Opera House.
This set of songs takes for its texts German translations of Russian poems, four by Anna Akhmatova and five by Boris Pasternak. The choice of German language is interesting and, to my ears, has implications for the music itself. While the music of the Viola Sonata has a decidedly English feel to it these songs put me much more in mind of Lieder composed by Austrian and German composers in the first half of the last century. I don’t know if that’s correct or whether I was making an incorrect assumption inspired by the language. I found Einzige Tage, despite its considerable merits, harder to penetrate than the sonata. This, I think, is because I couldn’t always get behind the poems – which is a failing on my part - and so couldn’t always appreciate to the full Pott’s response to the texts.
Die Musik is a setting of an Akhmatova poem dedicated to Shostakovich and I admired the subtlety of the allusions in the music to the famous DSCH motif. The vocal line is very intense. Abschied is another Akhmatova setting and here both the poem and the music convey the sorrow of parting – through death. This song seems to me to be very firmly in the late Romantic Lied tradition. Juli, a Pasternak setting, is an unusual composition. Throughout the song the piano part has the feel of a fast blues. The vocal line is at times angular and quirky and elsewhere cast in longer, lyrical lines. Twice the setting is “interrupted” by extended vocalise passages; as yet I don’t quite understand how these attractive vocalises fit into the structure of the setting.
Akhmatova’s König Grauauge is given a very fine, thoughtful setting. A man brings to his wife the news that the grey-eyed king is dead. Having relayed the news he goes off to his night’s work whereupon the woman goes upstairs to the bedroom where her daughter is in bed. The daughter, too, has grey eyes and the inference is obvious. What was an inference then becomes explicit, at least in the music. There was repressed sorrow in the first part of the song but left alone the woman voices her true anguish in impassioned music. The Pasternak poem Einzige Tage which gives the collection its title is a wistful, delicate setting but the final piece, Akhmatova’s Finsterer Traum is set to anguished music of great intensity.
Alla Kravchuk is an admirable interpreter of these songs. Her voice has a fine gleam to it. She can invest the music with drama, as you’d expect from a seasoned opera singer, but she’s just as capable of inwardness. I admired the clarity of her tone and diction. Simon Phillips makes a series of expert contributions at the piano.
Both works have been very well recorded. The booklet contains informative notes by the composer and clearly laid out texts and translations.
This disc contains two rewarding and accessible works in what are surely definitive performances. Francis Pott is a significant composer and it’s good to have these two fine examples of his recent work made widely available through the medium of these recordings.