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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Cello and Piano Sonata in G minor (1923) [20:13]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin and Piano Sonata No. 3 (1930, transc. for cello and piano by Lionel Handy) [17:56]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Cello and Piano Sonata (1923) [32:43]
Lionel Handy (cello)
Jennifer Hughes (piano)
rec. Recital Room, Royal Academy of Music, London, 2016
LYRITA SRCD361 [70.52]

The cellist Lionel Handy has more than a passing interest in twentieth century British Music. He has performed the concertos of Finzi, Bax, Walton and Delius, and through his work with the London Sinfonietta has rubbed shoulders with such eminent composers as Tippett and Birtwistle. Here, in partnership with pianist Jennifer Hughes, he turns his attention to three British cello sonatas.

John Ireland's G minor Sonata dates from 1923 and was premiered the following year by cellist Beatrice Harrison and pianist Evlyn Howard-Jones at the Aeolian Hall in London. The composer, himself, made a record of it for Columbia in 1928 with cellist Antoni Sala, who declared it 'the best cello sonata of modern times'. Its popularity amongst cellists is proven by the number of recordings the work has had. A quick browse on Amazon UK revealed about eight alternative versions - there may be more. Such is its appeal that Lionel Tertis made a viola version in 1941, which he premiered with Ireland at a National Gallery concert in October of that year. For me, the secret of its success is the accessible tonal language, exuberant melodic outpourings and traditional harmonic progressions. The Sonata is set in three movements, and the sombre four-note motif which ushers in the opening movement provides the basic building block upon which much of the work is constructed. The general tenor of the movement is darkly laden, wistful and pensive. Yet, there are moments of dramatic tension. Handy and Hughes’ skilfully-managed building up of the climax at around 6:20 has a striking potency. The Poco largamente which follows has an almost beguiling innocence. Impressive is the rich sonorous tone of the cello, which contours the sublime melody with rarefied expressiveness. The exuberant finale is trenchant and acerbic, and the players scale its rugged terrain with rhythmic acuity.

Lionel Handy plays his own arrangement of Delius' Violin Sonata No. 3 which he made in 2012 and premiered in November of that year with pianist Nigel Clayton, timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. Again Tertis also made an arrangement for viola, which he performed privately for Delius in February 1933 with Eric Fenby. A late work, it was completed with the assistance of Fenby, Delius' amanuensis. May Harrison gave the first performance with Arnold Bax on piano at the Wigmore Hall in November 1930. The Sonata is melodically bountiful, with its second movement whimsical and quirky, offering some contrast to the lyrical outpourings of the outer movements. The players are sensitive to every nuance and inflection of Delius' idiosyncratic writing, subtly shading the rich harmonic textures. Rubato is judiciously applied and works well.

The Bax Sonata in E flat is on a much grander scale than the other two works, in terms of length, emotional scope and vision. Like the Ireland it dates from 1923, a time when Bax was basking in some popularity. Beatrice Harrison, together with Harriet Cohen on piano, premiered it at the Wigmore Hall in February 1924.  The first movement is tempestuous and rhapsodic, but does have its calmer moments. I'm very taken with the slow movement. The opening uses material from his symphonic work Spring Fire. It evokes the tree branches dripping with dew as day dawns, and the unleashing of earthy fragrances. The cello plays a sombre lament over Hughes' exquisite diaphanous accompaniment. The gritty arpeggiated chords that usher in the energetic finale are superbly negotiated. The players invest the movement with plenty of vigour, verve and rhythmic drive. The 'big tune' is eloquently shaped and ardently sculpted.

This thoughtfully curated programme is all the more successful for the utter commitment and seductive playing of Handy and Hughes. This is music which deserves a wider currency, and these performances are both convincing and rich in musical insights. The recorded sound and balance are first rate, and Paul Conway's fulsome annotations are, as always, beyond reproach.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: John France 



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