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British Cello Works
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Cello Sonata in C minor (1880) [28:07]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Divertimento, for cello and piano (1941-43) [12:28]
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Nine Bagatelles, for cello and piano, Op.10 (1942) [7:14]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Rhapsody for cello and piano (1923) [25:07]
Lionel Handy (cello)
Jennifer Hughes (piano)
rec. 2018, Royal Academy of Music, London
LYRITA SRCD.383 [73:06]

It’s a good sign that this disc is simply called ‘British Cello works’ and not ‘Cello works by Women composers’ or something like that. As Thea Musgrave once fervently said, “I am a composer who happens to be a woman”. There is nothing feminine about this music (whatever that could mean) and it’s all of a high standard and all performed with deep understanding and commitment.

The disc opens with Ethel Smyth’s unpublished Sonata in C minor. This is not to be confused with Smyth’s A minor Cello Sonata Op 7 of 1887. This C minor sonata is very ‘Leipzig’ if you understand my meaning. Smyth was a student there and spent much time in Germany at that time. It’s a very Schumannesque work at least in its outer movements, and by that I mean not so much Robert as Clara Schumann, whom Smyth knew well and wrote about affectionately in her memoirs. Strangely enough, this Cello sonata is not mentioned in her book, but may have had a quiet, private performance in Leipzig, as some of her other early works had done. But we do know that it wasn’t heard again until a Wigmore Hall recital in 1981.

The four movements include a sort of scherzo, which comes second and is actually entitled by Smyth ‘in Lšndler tempo’. It is really an Austrian dance, complete with a drone cello part in its trio section. The next movement, an andante, is a theme and four variations with an especially moving final variation. This movement shows considerable personality, as indeed does the Rondo finale, with its lively rhythms, and the very enjoyable second subject of the first movement. This practically unknown work, written when Dame Ethel was just twenty-six, shows considerable maturity. It is well worth the time spent on it and deserves to be published and recognised.

The large-scale opening and closing works bookend two shorter ones.
Elizabeth Maconchy’s Divertimento is a skilfully written and idiomatic piece, which splits into five sections. The opening ‘Serenade’ is the longest and is suffused with Latin-American rhythms – that iss probably the reason why the entire work was first broadcast on the BBC’s Latin-American Service in March 1943. After that it has four very distinctive ’vignettes’, the first entitled ‘Galubchik’ which is, unsurprisingly, Russian in character, then ‘The Clock’ with its obvious ticking rhythm, followed by ‘Vigil’, a moving lament based on just three chords, and finally a vivacious ‘Masquerade’. The work, so unknown till now, would make an excellent addition to any cellist’s repertoire.

Elisabeth Lutyens’ Nine Bagatelles represent just the sort of piece that she did so well. As Paul Conway’s excellent and detailed booklet notes inform us, there are several works in her catalogue which can be described as miniatures. But miniatures in name only because these Bagatelles, as other pieces by her alluded to like the ‘Five Bagatelles’ for piano of 1962 and her last work, the ‘Triolets’, (1982) pack an awful lot into their sparse few seconds. Here we have a wonderful contrast of tempi and mood and even style, although serial technique is used and unfolded throughout. Conway describes the Bagatelles with much care and the work represents a very happy addition to the still the discography of the still little known composer.

The more I hear of Rebecca Clarke’s music, especially the large scale works, the more impressed and moved I become. I mean, for example, the Viola Sonata and the Piano Trio, but now we can certainly add this single span Rhapsody to the list. It opens with a portentous tolling bass which returns briefly at the close, but in the intervening twenty-five minutes you have been what is, at times, a journey of emotional turmoil, mystery, childlike pleasures and joy during its five connected sections. The language is often modal but extended to introduce much melodic chromaticism. We move sometimes into an almost pastoral landscape, as for example the second subject of the final Allegro ritmico with its uneven rhythms on either side. Tone quality needs always be rich and clearly focused and this is superbly achieved by Lionel Handy, ably and magnificently supported by Jennifer Hughes. My only disappointment is that the sections, although played without a break, are not tracked or even indexed – for study purposes it would have been very useful. Incidentally, there is another Lyrita version of this work by Raphael Wallfisch and John York (SRCD 354). This is tracked, and also attacks the aforementioned Allegro section with a little more verve.

The performances are consistently superb and beautifully balanced the recording spacious but immediate.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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