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So Many Stars
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Sonatina for violin and piano, op. 17 (1942) [13:38]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Sonatine for violin and piano (1934) [12:06]
Cheryl Frances-HOAD (b. 1980)
Sonatina for violin and piano (2011) [16:23]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Sonatina in E major, op. 80 (1915) [11:22]
Gordon CROSSE (b. 1937)
Sonatina for violin and piano (2010) [11:13]
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Sonatina for violin and piano (1933) [10:36]
Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Nicola Eimer (piano)
rec. 2016, St John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK
STONE RECORDS 5060192780826 [75:18]

I began my exploration of this fascinating CD with the last work, William Alwyn’s Sonatina for violin and piano, which he composed when he was 28 years old. It was first heard in 1935 in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music as part of a series of concerts featuring new music. The work received a premiere recording on Naxos (8.570340) in 2007 and was not published until 2010. The Sonatina, like all the works on this CD, is in three movements. The opening Allegro e grazioso is a delight, with a memorable main tune and an equally unforgettable prelude-like piano part. The contrasting mood is wistful. There is certainly a touch of the French muse about this music. The middle Adagio is more pensive and reserved than might be expected in a sonatina. It is brittle and unruffled but not too intense. The exciting combines a waltz, a gigue and lots of rhythmic variety. The entire work is a subtle balance between Alwyn’s natural penchant for romantic music and a more neo-classical mood.

Like many listeners of my generation, I first came across Jean Françaix’s music in the 1970s when a movement from his delightful L’Horloge for oboe and orchestra introduced Robin Ray’s Review on Radio 3. (I am sure I am correct about this, but I could be wrong!) Since then, I have only come across a handful of pieces from his pen. I think his style was basically neo-classicist with a modern twist: he did not indulge in avant-garde explorations. Most of the works that I have heard are characterised by fun, vibrancy, wit and some nods to a deeper and sadder mood. In fact, as a composer he is right up my street: I should spend more time getting to know hum.

The present Violin Sonatina, composed in 1934, is a case in point. This is an urbane work that has all the above-mentioned characteristics. The opening Vivace is vibrant, sparky and almost tearaway in its headlong progress. The second movement alternates violin and piano interludes. It is reflective and ultimately ‘blue’. However, all the vibrancy is restored with an idiosyncratic theme and variations.

I turned to the opening track, the Violin Sonatina by Lennox Berkeley. Written in 1943, it was dedicated to Gladys Bryans with whom the composer and his friend Benjamin Britten had stayed whilst on a working holiday in Gloucestershire. This is an approachable piece, despite being written in what was then a relatively modern style. Berkeley has used a standard sonata form in the opening Moderato. The two subjects are easygoing. Nearly all the drama is presented in the development section. All this, in just under five minutes. I enjoyed the brief Lento which presents a pensive theme quickly developed into a considerable climax. All ends as it started. The finale is an absorbing theme with five variations which present complex mood changes. This includes a charming tune, a scherzetto and a quirky waltz. The movement ends peacefully with a recapitulation of the original theme.

Cheryl Francis-Hoad’s Violin Sonatina began life as a cello work she wrote in 2011 called Songs and Dances. The liner notes explain that the composer has reversed the usual progress of fast-slow-fast movements in a sonatina to give a slow-fast-slow structure. The opening, played ‘quietly dignified’, lives up to is descriptions. In fact, this is slow, reserved and introverted music that certainly does provide ‘space and grandeur’. The Scherzo, on the other hand, is a little piercing on the ears due to considerable use of violin harmonics. Fortunately, the Trio section comes back down to earth. The Finale largely recaptures the reticent mood of the opening movement. The entire work is characterised by rhythmic diversity and a rather tentative (deliberate) exploration of the material by both performers. On the other hand, the Sonatina closes with a massive coda and a resounding C major chord. Notwithstanding the harmonics, I enjoyed this work and appreciated its imagination and thoughtfulness. Despite the title, this 16-minute work is a powerful, dynamic and often moving contribution to the violin and piano repertoire. For information on Cheryl Francis-Hoad, see her excellent website.

I know very little of Jean Sibelius’s chamber music. Just glancing at the catalogue suggests that there is plenty to have a go at. I guess that my listening has concentrated on his seven symphonies and evocative tone-poems. The present Violin Sonatina began life as a sonata. His diary for Christmas Day explains that the idea had been with him for several years, in fact since the 1880s when he had produced a couple of examples of the larger genre. The present work was completed three months later. The composer wrote that working on the piece reminded him of his youthful imaginings: ‘Dreamed I was twelve years old and a virtuoso. My childhood sky was full of stars – so many stars.’ This is reflected in music that is predominantly classical in form, but not necessarily harmonically. Despite the bright key of E major chosen for this piece, the musical language can be unsmiling in places. The serious middle movement reflects the difficulties, both financial and artistic, that Sibelius was facing at that time. Yet, the finale blows all this sadness away. After a morose Lento the music turns to dance which seems to be a return to winter dreams, jingling sleigh bells and all.

I first came across Gordon Crosse in 1973. I found a review copy of his impressive choral piece Changes. It had been released on an old Argo LP (ZRG-656, now re-released on Lyrita SRCD.259, 2007). Since then, I have tried to hear as much of his music as possible, although that has been quite difficult. There are relatively few CDs available, and I have rarely come across his work in the concert hall.

The Violin Sonatina is dedicated to the present soloist, Fenella Humphreys. It was written after Crosse had heard her play. It arrived on her doormat two weeks later. I understand that he mined discarded works for some of the material. The opening movement contrasts slow music with ‘dramatic and confident’ passages. The effect is edgy and nervous. This is followed by a ‘lament’ which explores a Scottish theme on the solo violin, soon followed by a ‘chilled’ walking bass piano part. The third movement, Caprice-Finale, was derived from a piece for recorder and piano which had ruminated on Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope is a thing with feathers…’ This is a balance between uneasy, high-pitched violin phrases and a slightly more relaxed piano part.

Gordon Crosse is a composer who appeals to me: his music is sometimes challenging and always fascinating. This Violin Sonatina is no exception.

The playing by Fenella Humphreys and Nicola Eimer is superb. I can well understand why Crosse was so impressed. The recording of these six sonatinas is ideal. Nicola Eimer’s liner notes give all the required details to aid enjoyment. There is a brief biographical note about the soloists. I did find the font a bit small and needed my magnifying glass. You can download a PDF booklet online: if only all record companies would oblige us with this important, but often ignored service. Finally, this is a well-chosen selection of music. I enjoyed every piece, and hope that the duo will revisit the British (and French) repertoire soon.

John France



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