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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Sonata in G minor for cello and piano (1923) [20:13]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Sonata No.3 for violin and piano (1930, (arr. for cello and piano by Lionel Handy) [17:56]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Sonata for cello and piano (1923) [32:43]
Lionel Handy (cello)
Jennifer Hughes (piano)
rec. Recital Room, Royal Academy of Music, July 2016
LYRITA SRCD.361 [70:52]

This excellent new CD from Lyrita opens with John Ireland’s cello sonata; it is one of my favourite contributions to the genre. Ireland’s Sonata was composed in 1923 and was first heard at the Aeolian Hall on 4 April 1924 played by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones. The mood of the music is typically reflective and the resulting work “is pervaded with the brooding mystery of the deep past”. Listeners have identified a strong sense of ‘place’ in this music, most especially the aura of the landscape around Chanctonbury Hill and the West Sussex Downs. The Sonata has been well-described by the composer and critic Marion Scott as “beginning quietly for cello alone, is cumulative and [ends] very brilliantly!” It is presented in three movements – a moderato e sostenuto, a poco largamente and a finale, con moto a marcato. Lionel Handy (cello), and Jennifer Hughes (piano) give a splendid performance here, with an especial magic created in the gorgeous slow movement. The knack of a successful reading of this Sonata is an understanding of the musical self-referencing between movements, and the creation of the timeless ‘pastoral’ in the slow movement. It must break the listeners heart, especially if they have been to Chanctonbury.

If I am honest, I am not sure about Delius’ Sonata No.3 for violin and piano (1930) arranged for cello and piano by the present cellist. I do not have a huge problem with transcriptions, and respect the work of (for example) the late Lionel Tertis in re-presenting works for viola and orchestra or piano. That said, I would always rather hear Elgar’s Cello Concerto in its original form: the same applies for the slew of Delius’ music that Tertis re-arranged for viola and piano. This included the Caprice and Elegy, the Double Concerto and the Sonatas No.2 and No.3 for violin and piano. The mitigation is that there are relatively few pieces composed for viola. The cello is another matter. I could suggest a dozen works that Lionel Handy could have included on this new CD of British cello sonatas. In my opinion, he did not need to transcribe Delius’ Sonata No. 3: it works perfectly well in its original incarnation.

That said, the transcription does ‘come off’. I enjoyed it: it is well played, and sounds as if it was meant to be. The nostalgic, valedictory mood of the original is well-captured by Handy and Hughes.

For the record, Delius completed this Sonata during March 1930. It was composed for the violinist May Harrison and was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 6 November 1930 by the dedicatee and Arnold Bax. The score was written in the hand of Eric Fenby.

Arnold Bax’s Cello Sonata is another of my favourite works in this genre. I first heard it on the old Lyrita LP (RCS 7) label with Florence Hooton, cello and Wilfrid Parry (piano). I had picked up an LP re-issue of this work in the late 1970s. These had been recorded in 1958: I still turn to it on CD (REAM 2104). Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Paul and Huw Watkins on Chandos (CHAN 10792) playing the Bax (and the Ireland) Sonatas. All three recordings are essential.

Bax’s Cello Sonata was completed towards the end of 1923 and was premiered on 26 February 1924 at the Wigmore Hall, by cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanied by Harriet Cohen. It was reported in the The Morning Post (27 February 1924) that the two soloists were given “an ovation, and so many floral and other offerings that the attendants in the end grew tired of handing them onto the stage…”

I have quoted Edwin Evans’ comment before: he considers that this dramatic music may suggest “a poetic basis which might almost take a narrative form”. Unfortunately, Evans does not suggest what this narrative might allude to.

The opening movement is full of energy and musical adventure. On the other hand, Paul Conway, in the exceptional liner notes, reminds the listener that the “start of the haunted slow movement is a transcription of the opening of Spring Fire, an orchestral evocation of the forest before dawn”. This in turn was inspired by Swinburne’s ‘Atalanta in Corydon’. Bax wrote that this passage suggested ‘the uncertain and pensive hour immediately before daybreak in the woodland.’ Another allusion to Spring Fire in the Cello Sonata is a quotation from the 4th movement, ‘Woodland Love’. This is associated with Swinburne’s line “And time remembered is grief forgotten”.

The finale is wild and almost demonic in places. However, the second subject is calmer and the work ends with a brief epilogue which seems to bring peace to an otherwise troubled world.
Finally, I feel that Bax’s usual topographical references which include Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland and England are not relevant here. In fact, there is something of a warm, passionate Mediterranean feel to much of this music.

This is an important and thoroughly enjoyable release from Lyrita. I have noted my reservations about the Delius ‘Cello’ Sonata transcription above. That said, I found all three works to be played with great creativity and imagination. The recording quality is as expected from Lyrita. The liner notes by Paul Conway are outstanding and present new slants on these works, most especially the Bax.

An essential purchase for all cello music enthusiasts as well as advocates for the three composers represented.

John France



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