Philip GATES (b. 1963)
Viola Sonata No. 1 (2014) [18:32]
Pipedream (1994, 2015) [4:48]
Prayer Meeting (2015) [7:18]
Viola Sonata No. 2 (1995, 2015) [18:16]
Matthew Jones (viola)
Philip Gates (piano)
rec. 13 October, 10 November 2015, Upper Cranbourne Farm, Sutton Scotney
MELODIST CD0108 [48:59]

British composer Philip Gates accommodates what he has to say within an aspiring unaffected melodic idiom. He does not go in for intellectual subterfuge. His speech to the listener is direct and not oblique or elitist-academic. The music stands in a fine tradition not at all alienated from the lyrical masterworks of Walton, Bax and Benjamin. It also sports syncopated jazzy or smoky bluesy elements - libations lightly applied.

This is also evidenced by his few previous discs. They've all been reviewed here: Garland for Gatsby (review review), Flights of Fancy, Shellwood collection and the Naim CD of the String Quartet No. 1. Gates was born in London, was a music scholar at Millfield, studied music at The Queen's College, Oxford and studied piano as a private pupil of Phyllis Sellick.

Mr Gates tells me he is quite a slow worker and that he tends to write for situations or combinations that might actually lead to a performance. For brass band he has written Crossing Jordan (2002) which was given its first performance by the Aldbourne Band. At the first performance he met the late David Fanshawe. He mentions that he wrote Crossing Jordan after studying the brass band Fantasy by Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland's Downland Suite. It was subsequently played a couple of times by the Guildhall School of Music Band. He hopes to write a symphony some day. His Piano Quintet also exists in a version for piano and string orchestra.

Gates' Viola Sonata No. 1, like his second, is in three movements. This breathes a rhapsodic air and feels like an intense concentrate - a quintessence. There's a liberated and liberating skip in the brevity of the second movement as well as a gorgeous countermelody at 1:10. The third movement tracks that unstable and ill-defined line between sadness and beauty - a fine finale. The score is dedicated to Gates' soul-mate Eva. Pipedream has a sentimental Delian sound with a Celtic 'fall' and swoon as well as the blues. The "Deep South" at times speaks out of the pages of Prayer Meeting with the viola voicing the preacher and the piano channelling the congregation. Both these genre pieces have a predominantly slow pulse. The Second Viola Sonata manages at the same time to pick up on a very British sauntering "Shropshire Lad" atmosphere and also a sidling snake-hipped progress. It’s a not unnatural meld in Gates' hands. The second movement has a touch of Steiner's starry slow misty-eyed dreaminess. As for the finale it reminds me of the equally imaginative and vital music of Lionel Sainsbury and of Milhaud's skip-in-the-step Scaramouche. Gates celebrates with a syncopation that will read well with lovers of Walton.

Matthew Jones is well known as a master viola player who can, without the appearance of anything forced or strenuous, make his instrument sing in auburn huskiness or in the finest silver of the violin. He is aided twofold here: by a close yet open-breathing recording and by the composer's pianism. The composer has also written the liner-note which places things in context. Jones has already recorded a collection of British music for Naxos and there are similar CDs of viola music by Bowen and Prokofiev.

The disc could have had a longer playing time. It is by no means a relief when it ends especially as Pipedream is an arrangement of a set of Gates' saxophone vignettes: Mood Music. Others of the vignettes could with advantage have been added. Then again, perhaps it is as well to be left wanting more.

One would hope that young (and other) contestants in events such as BBC Young Musician of the Year would take up these fine works. They make a telling emotional impact for audiences while also playing to musicians' feeling for poetry and zest in sound.

Rob Barnett