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Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2003)
Violin Sonata (c.1951) [19:01]
C.W. ORR (1893-1976)
Sarabande (after 1930) [5:55],
Minuet (after 1930) [3:44]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89)
Elegy Op. 33 No. 2 (1951) [3:22]
Toccata Op.33 No. 3 (1951) [1:56]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Two Sonnets (1914/15) [8:34]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Légende in E flat (c.1892-5) [8:03]
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-99)
Sonata No.1 in A (1939) [15:07]
Percy M. YOUNG (1912-2004)
Passacaglia (1931) [3:02]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Berceuse (1902) [3:59]
Bagatelle (1911) [2:50]
Fenella Humphreys (violin), Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK, 21-23 January 2016
LYRITA SRCD359 [75:34]

Here we have a traversal of out-of-the-way English violin music, mostly from the first half of the 20th Century. It starts with only the second recording of the splendid, three-movement violin sonata of a much-underrated composer, Doreen Carwithen. Carwithen was a pupil of William Alwyn and later became his wife but, although the idiom of her music is fairly similar to his, she was clearly a composer of note in her own right. A printing error on the back of the CD booklet attributes composition of the sonata to 1960 but the booklet notes date the composition to 1951. It was actually submitted to the BBC in 1952 but, amazingly, was rejected. I am tempted to make scathing remarks about the emerging “trendiness” and enthusiasm for the atonal which was to afflict the BBC during the Glock era – but that era didn’t start until seven years later. What is really astounding is that the BBC Music Panel which rejected this sonata included Gordon Jacob and Benjamin Frankel. What were they thinking?

At any rate, what of the performance here? The earlier recording (CHAN 9596) was made for Chandos by Lydia Mordkovitch (a pupil of David Oistrakh) and Julian Milford so I expected that to be a hard act to follow. The first thing that struck me on the Lyrita disc was the luxurious piano sound. It is really beautiful and captures Nathan Williamson’s excellent playing extremely well. Unfortunately, there are places where the balance towards the piano is in danger of marginalising the contribution of Fenella Humphreys - although she can always be clearly heard. Humphreys is obviously a sensitive and accomplished player with excellent intonation but I found her occasionally vibrato-less tone slightly uncongenial and I was expecting to enjoy Mordkovitch’s smokier sound more. In fact, switching between the two, a direct comparison indicates that there is actually very little to choose between the sounds of the two violinists. If, in the end, I slightly prefer Mordkovitch, it is mainly because Humphreys’ tone “chokes” in odd places (such as the beginning of the third movement). The timings of the two performances are very similar except in the last movement, where the Chandos performance takes nearly a minute longer. Although there are long passages where tempi sound identical (and one is tempted to wonder if the Lyrita artists learned the piece with the Chandos disc as a guide – as I would) the newer performance is the more varied. On balance, and despite my reservations, I prefer the newer disc.

Thomas Pitfield’s Violin Sonata No. 1 dates from 1939. What seems to be another small printing error on the back of the Lyrita booklet suggests that this is its première recording – although that honour belongs to a Heritage disc (HTGCD210) of the early 1990s where the artists are Denis Simons and Keith Swallow (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2016/Apr/Pitfield_chamber_HTGCD210.htm). This sonata is another very accessible work – this time in four movements. I suspect that Pitfield was influenced by Ravel’s Piano Trio of 1914 because the theme of the last movement’s “Cyclic Variations” sounds remarkably like a theme from the Ravel work in a different time signature.

A direct comparison of the two recordings is again instructive. Timings for all the movements on the Heritage disc are slightly faster - and Simons and Swallow certainly sound brisker at the start although, once again, there are long passages where the tempi are pretty well identical. This is a pity in the third movement Scherzo where, in my opinion, a breezier approach would have been preferable to the rather stolid and not very Allegro speed adopted by both duos. The violin sounds are distinct, however, and I prefer Simons’ faster vibrato and, in particular, the touching tone he achieves in the Ostinato second movement – possibly with the aid of a mute (which, I think, Humphreys eschews). Pianistic contributions are both excellent, and more or less even, so one’s choice must be dictated by considerations of violinistic preference or recording quality, in which latter respect the Lyrita disc once again scores.

The remainder of the new disc is filled up with a collection of sundry odd pieces – some of which (the rhapsodic Delius Légende and the rather forgettable early Ireland efforts) have been recorded before. It is a pity these artists did not take the opportunity to find another more significant piece in need of a first recording like, for example, Pitfield’s Violin Sonata No.2 or the first published sonata of Walford Davies.

The two pieces by C W Orr (no relation to either Buxton or Robin Orr) are pleasant but undistinguished salon music and one wonders what inspired their choice. Performances are adequate but sound rather like afterthoughts and could have done with being softer. I’m afraid Humphreys’ vibrato-less notes and slight tonal lurches don’t work for me here. Lennox Berkeley’s Elegy is all too similar although his busy Toccata makes a welcome contrast.

Cyril Scott’s two lovely Sonnets are, however, a different matter and the watery opening of the first one is beautifully caught here – reminiscent of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” from Ives’ “Three Places in New England”. The mood of the second is probably related to the flowery prose passage by Jean Paul (suggesting a romantic physical encounter) which Scott appended to the score and the performers certainly evoke this mood well. I really enjoyed these pieces.

Percy Young was only previously known to me from his realisation of the sketches Elgar left for the slow movement of his projected Piano Concerto. His Passacaglia is based on a ground theme that is ornamented, speeds up and - according to the notes - builds to a climax, although this climax doesn’t amount to much (and that’s not the fault of the performers). This is a very slight piece. In my opinion Walford Davies provided a much better example of the form in the slow movement of his second published violin sonata.

Booklet notes are good and informative but there is no information about the artists – merely references to their respective websites. I suppose this is adequate but it would have been nice to have the usual brief synopses and some photos.

To sum up: a few balance issues and minor quibbles over playing style do not seriously undermine a richly recorded and (for the most part) interesting selection of English violin music, very well performed.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: John France

 



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