Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)
Two conversations about Bach (1915) [7:41]
Frederick Septimus KELLY (1881-1916)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major Gallipoli (1915) [29:33]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (1915 rev. 1921) [37:53]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales, 19-20 November 2014
EM RECORDS EMRCD030 [75:14]
As has become the norm with EM Records, this is a carefully and intelligently constructed programme well produced, engineered and performed. It throws light on little-known or very rare British repertoire — by adoption in the case of Kelly.
Given that the Kelly Sonata is subtitled Gallipoli and that all three pieces were written in 1915 at the height of World War I it might reasonably be supposed that this is a disc of music written in response to war. Actually, and this is part of the fascination, not at all - pace Rupert Marshall-Luck who in his extended and very interesting liner note does hear the influence of War - but more of that later. In many ways Kelly's enduring fame rests on his much-quoted description of the death and burial of Rupert Brooke at Gallipoli.
The disc opens with an absolute gem. Somervell's Two Conversations about Bach receives - like the Kelly - its premiere recording. In essence this is one composer's tribute to the genius of another. Somervell has written a pair of extended moderate tempo 2-part inventions with a 'continuo' accompaniment. These slip between the worlds of Bach instrumental contrapuntal writing and his glorious arioso music for voice. Very skilfully Somervell has found a way to pay a clear tribute to the earlier master whilst also being of his own time. The recording is quite close and clinical - detailed and well balanced between the two instruments but not as brilliant as some that have made use of the Nimbus hall and facilities at Wyastone Leys. My other sorrow is that the budget did not allow for a second violinist to duet with Marshall-Luck 'live'. Especially since this work is termed a conversation it strikes me as a shame that this is - by definition - a manufactured performance with one of the two violin parts tracked onto the first. As a consequence there is no spontaneous interaction between the solo players and an additional minor consequence is - given the imitative and canonic effects which predominate - there is no tonal variety which the presence of two players on different instruments with slightly different techniques would automatically produce. That said, such is the charm of the music and its quality that much better to have it as here than not at all.
Frederick Kelly's Violin Sonata in G is the centre-piece of the programme. It has been given the subtitle Gallipoli where he was posted in 1915, a year before his death on the Somme. The work was written for the violinist Jelly d'Aranyi with whom Kelly had given recitals pre-War. Marshall-Luck hears remembrance of times past in the work - others might simply hear music of a rather conservative stance. Certainly, it is remarkable that any Art of worth could be formed in the environment of total War but Marshall-Luck quotes Leonard Borwick, a pianist and friend of Kelly, who said; "It is not the discomfort of the trenches that bears most hardly upon him ... with high explosive and gas shells dropping all around ... what 'gave him no peace' was an ... overmastering concern that his utterance might not lack one perfecting touch or last fine shade of expression." This says to me that the drive to write the work is an internal one to create something of beauty and worth - regardless of the immediate environment. That this is a worthy and serious work is not in doubt but I struggle to hear in it the quality and individuality that oozes from the Bax in every bar. Do not forget Bax was two years younger than Kelly but in 1915 he was in one of the great floods of his inspiration with a level of genius that leaves Kelly in the shade. The death of any person in war is a tragic loss but I do wonder if the tragedy here is what dictates the music being recorded rather than it having any exceptional worth in its own right.
Kelly's Sonata is in the standard three movements with rather extended opening and middle movements over-balancing the terse, but most interesting, Finale - based on a Ground. Marshall-Luck writes persuasively and passionately about the level of invention and intent in the music and I can hear what he means but this leaves me relatively unmoved. The musical influences sound more Germanic than British - certainly no trace of the folksong revival here and perhaps not wholly surprising given his post-graduate training in Frankfurt. In purely objective terms I find it hard to believe that if Kelly had survived, given the stature and genius of the generation of composers into which he was born, his reputation would have been other than as a minor composer.
Much as I love the music of Arnold Bax he seemed to spend much of World War I thoroughly cocooned and indifferent to the carnage unfolding around him. Just about the only specific reference to the War in his work is a note in the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra marked the exact moment the Armistice maroon sounded in Hyde Park. Worth remembering Bax was more engaged by the Irish uprising in 1916 than the Great War and in his alter ego of poet Dermot O'Byrne wrote only one poem that referred to the War at all. Later suggestions that his Symphony No.1 was in some way a reaction - albeit after the event - to the conflict was strongly rejected by the composer.
For clarification Marshall-Luck plays the 'standard' 1921 revision of the Sonata - the original which dates from 1915 remains unperformed. In essence he compressed the work and revisited the form of the '4-in-1' movement structure. In an unsigned note to the first performance in 1922 - but it is assumed to be by Bax - the writer did write that the second movement - the eponymous "Grey Dancer in the Twilight" - could be interpreted as a dance of Death in response to "the events of 1915". Yes there are clear reference to the Dies Irae in the music but to hear this as specifically 'war music' goes against everything that has been written about Bax. I wonder if the reference to 1915 mentioned above is either something personal and unspecified or because the Bax of 1921 felt he ought to say it was in response to the conflict. As such I must admit that I am not wholly convinced - the presence of the main theme from November Woods which dominates the whole work seems of far greater extra-musical significance. Surely this implies much more of a fixation upon his passionate relationship with Harriet Cohen which was at its peak at this time. Curiously Marshall-Luck in the liner refers to the motto nature of this theme but makes no reference at all to it also appearing in November Woods. Given that Bax at this time in his life has music pouring from him there must surely be an extra-musical reason for this linkage that goes beyond it being a good tune. Indeed the whole work opens with a variant on this theme and finding a 'reason' for its presence is surely central to a successful interpretation.
As mentioned before, from the very first notes this music has a turbulence and a power quite beyond the scope of Kelly. Following the score it is immediately clear that this is a demanding and complex work. Critics complain that too often Bax writes chamber music that feels like it is straining at the limitations of the form. What this music does undoubtedly demand is a sweep and ambition in performance as well as huge technical address from the players. Bax laces his score with many evocative instructions; "rough and fierce", "very passionate", "very flexible", "very expressive", "very emotional and exuberant" as well as the standard indications of tempo and dynamic that occur in the first movement alone. The challenge for any performer is to rise to these exhortations without the music spilling over into some kind of over-emoted musical nervous breakdown. At the same time it is important to reflect these extremes effectively - I find the emotional landscape in this performance to have been rather evened out.
Whilst not exactly over-recorded Marshall-Luck faces considerably more opposition in the Bax sonata. Tasmin Little combined it with the Elgar on GMN (re-released on Dal Segno) while Erich Gruenberg coupled it with the First Sonata on Chandos CHAN8845. The other two performances are part of complete surveys of Bax's music for violin and piano from Laurence Jackson on Naxos and Robert Gibb on ASV. Of these I have not heard the Little but I must admit I prefer all of the other performances to Marshall-Luck. On purely technical terms Marshall-Luck is a fine and intelligent performer but the other players are even more sophisticated and assured. Marshall-Luck's tone hardens just a fraction during the high-lying passages - in part perhaps due to the recording which does not present the Wyastone Concert Hall quite as sympathetically as others.
My main concern is not a technical one but rather musical. Bax often diverts his musical flow into passages of beautiful rapture. Marshall-Luck favours broad tempi which can make this teeter on the edge of stasis. Graham Parlett in his stunning and definitive catalogue of Bax's works gives an overall timing for the work of 30:34 - Marshall-Luck comes in at a rather boggling 37:53. For comparison Gibbs is 32:05, Gruenberg exactly 30:34 (Parlett's reference recording I assume), Little 31:48 and Jackson 31:01. To take one example - the third movement is headed "very broad and concentrated" with a tempo indication of crochet/quarter note = 44. Marshall-Luck pulls that right back to somewhere around 35 and takes 12:11 to play this movement in contrast to Jackson's 8:56. As a consequence, to my ear the lyrical line simply collapses and the sense of musical phrase and 'gravitational pull' is destroyed and the music meanders. This sense is not helped by Marshall-Luck's generalising of the carefully marked dynamics.
Of the versions I know listed above it strikes me that Laurence Jackson, supported by Bax specialist Ashley Wass is the best by some distance. I admire Robert Gibbs' playing a lot and his is a more gently musing and reflective account but one that does not mistake musing for torpor. In contrast I find that his version lacks the muscular dynamism which is the other aspect of this music and one which Jackson encompasses so well in addition to having the flexibility and fantasy for the other passages too. As a consequence of listening to this performance I have revisited the Jackson/Wass disc and I find it superior in every respect to this new version. In favour of the current disc is that it is strongly and individually conceived but sadly it has left me wholly unconvinced and even occasionally bored. Alongside the modest but interesting talent expressed in the Kelly Sonata this does appear as something of a minor masterpiece even if my favourite of the Bax Violin Sonatas remains the third simply for the concision of form.
Praise as ever to Em Records and Rupert Marshall-Luck for their passionate promotion of undervalued British music. The disc is produced to their consistently high standards including another evocative photograph by Em Marshall-Luck gracing the cover but aside from the unexpected gem of the Somervell this is one of their lesser achievements on disc to date.
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