Ivor KEYS (1919-1995)
Cello Sonata (1960) [21:30]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Malinconia, Op.20 (1900) [12:18]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 (1878-79) (transcribed for cello by Julius Klengel (publ. 1897)) [29:58]
Rohan de Saram (cello)
Benjamin Frith (piano)
rec. April 2014, Tonbridge, School, Kent, UK

The three works selected for this disc ensure its uniqueness. Ivor Keys, better known as an academic than composer, leads with his 1960 Cello Sonata. Sibelius follows with his distinctively sombre Malinconia and the final piece belongs to Brahms - but with a Klengelian twist.

Keys was a pianist and organist. He played the Rachmaninov Second Concerto whilst still at school and became the youngest Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. He took a series of distinguished academic appointments - Queen’s University, Belfast followed by Nottingham and then Birmingham universities, where he succeeded Anthony Lewis but he managed to produce a number of works throughout that time.

The Cello Sonata was written when he was at Nottingham and was dedicated to Maurice Eisenberg, cellist of the Menuhin Trio of the day. There’s a degree of taut asperity in the opening movement that gradually resolves into an appealing lyricism, the tension between nervous intensity and expressive rumination being finely judged. Keys is certainly not afraid of directness, the opening piano statements of the central movement being unambiguously warm and whilst there is a degree of sombre introspection here, he contrasts registers very wittily – the low humming cello set against the piano’s treble, for example. The finale dispels any accumulated care, like a kind of updated Grieg; here Keys gives full rein to his propensity for contrast – tempo changes, rich effects, running pizzicati, the two instruments scurrying after each other. This sonata certainly has plenty of character. At his debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1958 de Saram was accompanied by Keys and also – in his own cello sonata – by Edmund Rubbra. The cellist’s identification with and mastery of Keys’ sonata makes for compelling listening.

Sibelius’ Malinconia is a markedly more monothematic affair, majoring in intensity. Rohan de Saram brings real dignity of expression to its paragraphs, imbuing the cantilena with a firm but benevolent sensitivity. In his own centre-stage moments, Benjamin Frith fully exploits the piano’s flowing figuration.

There have been other arrangements over the years of Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata, but this is the earliest. The work was undertaken by Paul Klengel, one of the most famous cellists of his time, and one who lived long enough to record on 78s. The cello version is inevitably a touch slower, in temporal terms, than the more quick-speaking violin, but Klengel’s idiomatic arrangement provides cellists with a viable addition to the repertoire. There’s something especially meditative and warmly voiced about employing a cello, and these are the qualities that Rohan de Saram and Benjamin Frith find in the work.

The recording quality is bright and cool in Tonbridge School, but attractively so, and the booklet notes have been finely presented.

Jonathan Woolf

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