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Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
String Trio No. 1 (1951) [20:06]
Sonatina for Solo Violin in B minor (1963) [ 8:29]
Caprice after Puck for Solo Viola (1978) [14:12]
Partita for Solo Cello (1985) [17:32]
String Trio No. 2 (1964) [17:50]
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 2014
NAXOS 8.573856 [78:30]

I now have quite a few recordings of the music of Stephen Dodgson mainly due to Dutton, whose series of recordings of his string quartets are a real pleasure to listen to, as well as his Essays for Orchestra (CDLX7236) which offer more of a rewarding challenge to the listener. I have also enjoyed some of his other chamber music, especially his Sonata for Brass Quintet (SRCD307) and his music for cello and piano (TOCC0353), as well as Karolos’ first venture into the composer’s music for Naxos (8.573857), with all of these recordings pointing to Dodgson being a significant figure in British music in the second half of the twentieth and early twenty first century, even if unknown to many.

For their second disc exploring the music of the composer, Karolos have chosen to highlight Dodgson’s two string trios, interspersing them with three works one for each of the solo string instruments, an approach which works well. There are some thirteen years between the two trios, with Dodgson regarding the String Trio No. 1, or String Trio in A as it was originally called, as his first major success as a composer, this despite him winning the Cobbett Memorial Prize for a Fantasy String Quartet three years earlier. It received its premiere on the BBC Third Programme in a performance by the Virtuoso String Trio, which consisted of Neville Marriner, Stephen Shingles and Alexander Kok. It is a strongly engaging work which grabbed my attention right from its opening flourish and in the way that its thematic materials develop into a three-way conversation. The second movement is a is a tender Andante that builds upon a hymn-like theme into a more agitated and dissonant section before the main theme returns. The final movement opens energetically, before a more reflective theme takes over, this idea of differing sections of excited and agitated music followed by more contemplative sections is continued through the movement, almost like an argument, before the resolution when the movement concludes with a calm air of resolution.

The Trio is followed by the three works for the individual solo stringed instruments, with all three works showing that Dodgson was the master of writing for solo strings despite himself being a horn player, with the Partita for Solo Cello being my favourite. The Sonatina for Solo Violin in B minor was Dodgson’s first major work for a solo instrument and could be seen as a homage to J S Bach and especially the B minor Partita No. 1 BWV 1002. It is divided into four short, pithy movements and despite the work’s strong musical content it had to wait fifty years for its first recorded performance at Stephen Dodgson’s Memorial Concert in 2013. This is followed by the Caprice after Puck for Solo Viola, the longest single movement on the disc. The piece is a virtuosic viola work, its many changes in tempo and thematic material being a good test even for the most gifted of violists. It takes its inspiration two lines of text from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and weaves a theme and a set of variations from a leitmotif derived from a handful of notes that are identified as ‘Puck’s footprints’. In contrast the Partita for Solo Cello, the latest work on this disc, is cast in eight movements with its main theme being stated in the short Prologue, with the third and eighth movements being variations on this theme. Again, the diverse character of the eight movements shows off the virtuosic nature of the cello and cellist alike, and I am glad to say that here as in the other solo pieces all of the players rise to the challenge well.

The final work on the disc is the String Trio No. 2 which was composed for the BBC Music in Our Time Series, and despite the recordings three index tracks, is in five linked movements. The first movement contains a theme which is first heard on the viola and cello which is then taken up by the violin, and it is this theme that can be seen as the heart of the work, as it acts as a link, since it is repeated in various ways later in the work, with the final Lento section at the end of the work reiterating the theme. For me the earlier String Trio, with its greater diversity is the most engaging of the two, but there is still some very fine writing here, and Dodgson’s use of the main theme here is very interesting. This is very interesting modern tonal music, although Steven Dodgson does explore the bounds of tonality, as he does in the majority of the works by him that I know.

The performance of the three string players of the larger ensemble, Karolos, Harriet Mackenzie, Sarah-Jane Bradley and Graham Walker are excellent throughout, with each player making light of what ever challenge the composer lays before them. Their performance seems to portray their enjoyment of this music whether as soloists or members of the trio. The recorded sound is excellent as is the booklet essay by Graham Wade, which is informative and detailed, although the printing on the right-hand side of page 3 has gone a bit out of kilter with the final character of a number of lines jumping forward a space, so that real becomes “rela” and of becomes “fo”. This disc is a valuable addition to the composer’s growing discography and one that should be snapped up by all devotees of Dodgson’s and twentieth century English music alike.

Stuart Sillitoe


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