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Let Beauty Awake
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Five songs from ‘Songs of Travel’ (1901-04) (transcr. E Nisbeth for viola and piano) [12:48]
Romance (c.1914) [6:29]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) [23:32]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Third Suite for Cello, Op 87 (1971) (transcr. Nisbeth for solo viola) [21:58]
Lachrymae, Reflections on a song of John Dowland, Op 48 (1950) [13:55]
Ellen Nisbeth (viola)
Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. 2016, Grünewaldsalen, Konserthuset, Stockholm
Reviewed in stereo and surround
BIS BIS-2182 SACD [80:18]

As I played this album for the first time, the evening was drawing in, the big autumn Lancashire sky, a patchwork of peach and pencil grey stretched into the far distance toward the shadowy contours of Pendle Hill. At this stage of the year the day’s end doesn’t tarry unduly but on this occasion it augured a divine serendipity of sound and sight. ‘Let Beauty Awake’ is especially an album to cherish for those of us lucky enough to have the seed of North in our DNA. But I can’t imagine anyone from beyond those confines failing to respond to this meticulously crafted recital.

The sonic contribution lies firstly in the sound of Ellen Nisbeth’s viola. For those readers who wish to know about such things the booklet tells us that she uses a Dom Nicolò Amati viola dating from 1714. I don’t pretend to be an expert but this viola makes a ravishing, burnished sound in this young soloist’s hands. The BIS engineers have captured an extraordinarily truthful sonic image – utterly convincing in both surround and stereo. It’s probably the most ‘alive’ viola disc I’ve ever heard. The balance between viola and piano is perfect.

The latter remark also applies to the playing. Bengt Forsberg is an extremely experienced accompanist, of course, in both lieder and in chamber music. It must be a daunting prospect for any relative novice (in terms of recording at least) to be paired up with such a legend but frankly they sound as though they have been performing together for aeons. Not only that but Forsberg is one of the most generous of partners and that quality shines through on this disc.

Ellen Nisbeth has transcribed five of the first six of Vaughan Williams’ early Songs of Travel for viola and piano and these are wisely interspersed throughout the disc (The second one provides its title). Hence ‘The Vagabond’ (the most famous of the songs included here) acts as a kind of prelude, and ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ as a postlude. The other transcriptions act as interludes which separate the four extended items. I think this arrangement works splendidly in this context – we are often told that the cello is the most vocal-sounding of instruments but hearing these transcriptions may well convince listeners that the viola is even more songful. Indeed Nisbeth justifies their inclusion in a brief introductory note – she inherited a love of Robert Louis Stevenson from her Scottish forbears and her soulful playing of these lovely songs belies the absence of his words. (The texts are thoughtfully included to remind us). Forsberg’s contribution is quite beyond reproach.

There’s more Vaughan Williams in the shape of the wistful Romance, a lovely piece that is often overlooked presumably because its six and a half minute duration makes it hard to programme. It inhabits the same world as ‘The Lark Ascending’ and is thought to have been composed at around the same time. The uneasy and short-lived intensity of the central section is brought off splendidly by Nisbeth and provides a dramatic contrast to the limpid and eerie opening and close. Again the tact of Forsberg’s accompaniment is clear – it truly pays dividends in this all-too-brief mini-masterpiece.

The centrepiece, and perhaps the highlight of the disc for this listener is Rebecca Clarke’s still underappreciated Viola Sonata. ‘Underappreciated’ is an adjective which could be linked to any of Clarke’s works. I am familiar with recordings by Philip Dukes and Sophia Rahman on an extensive Naxos survey of her chamber music (8.557934 - Michael Cookson’s MusicWeb review can be read here.), and with Tabea Zimmermann and Kirill Gerstein’s performance on Myrios (MYR004 -in a mixed recital with Vieuxtemps and Brahms sonatas- Jonathan Woolf’s review is here.). In my view Nisbeth and Forsberg trump both of these still excellent accounts. Zimmermann is undoubtedly a superb violist but her account on Myrios, good as it is, misses something of the work’s English essence. That is a criticism that can’t be levelled at the Dukes/Rahman account, but I feel that the Swedish duo ultimately provide greater technical security, produce a more variegated range of colours and are certainly better recorded. They also in my view more convincingly capture the elusive core of this great work. At the point in the finale where Adagio becomes Agitato via a long tremelando (actually marked ponticello tremolo in the score) Nisbeth unleashes a veritable sonic rainbow. It is an unforgettable passage.

After ‘The Roadside Fire’ we get a transcription (again by this soloist) of Britten’s final Suite for solo cello. While such an arrangement could never displace the original (nor any recording truly challenge Rostropovich’s legendary account) the piece really doesn’t seem out of place on the viola. I was once again drawn to the amazing palette of sounds Nisbeth coaxes from her instrument , not least in the mighty Passacaglia that closes the work, in which the three folk songs and the Kontakion upon which the whole edifice is built are revealed. Nisbeth builds up the tension masterfully.

Britten also contributes the final extended work on the programme, the more familiar Lachrymae after Dowland’s song ‘If my complaints could passions move’, whose melody again emerges only towards the work’s conclusion. Another measured and deeply-considered reading from both players further amplifies the charms of this generously filled issue.

As viola and piano recitals go, the imagination that has informed the planning and layout of this one takes some beating. If the repertoire appeals, the performances are exemplary. The engineering for both formats is well-nigh ideal. I certainly look forward to hearing much more from Ellen Nisbeth and her wonderful viola.

Richard Hanlon



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