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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Violin Sonata, Op.34 (1896) [28:19]
Romance, Op.23 (1893) [6:19]
Invocation, Op.55 (1904) [3:56]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Violin Sonata, Op.7 (c.1887) [23:54]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Three Romances, Op.22 (1853) [8:56]
Tasmin Little (violin)
John Lenehan (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20030 [71:27]

Conjoining music by the two leading women composers of their time in Britain and America, and with a booklet introduction that stresses their place in the scheme of things, ensures that this disc situates Amy Beach and Ethel Smyth in the tradition of the third of the triumvirate, Clara Schumann. But as Laura Tunbridge suggests, the similarities between the three are balanced by their divergences in career, ambition and scope. And attractive as Schumann’s Romances are, the main focus of this disc lies in the relative rarity of the big violin sonatas by Beach and Smyth (especially the latter), who were born just under a decade apart.

Chandos has already recorded Beach’s 1896 Sonata where it was played by Gabrielle Lester and Diana Ambache (CHAN 10162) in an all-Beach chamber music disc. This earlier recording saw the sonata in broader and less romanticised terms but Tasmin Little and John Lenehan’s concertante instincts are vividly engaged in their altogether faster and more dramatic reading. She brings out the music’s melodic riches with appositely broad tonal resource, employs firefly articulation in the Scherzo – Lenehan’s colouristic palette is at its zenith here – and brings a luscious sense of phrasing to bear on the slow movement. Her expressive urgency is far more persuasive than the competing Chandos version and in the finale there’s con fuoco tension to the playing that, I’m afraid, leaves the listless earlier Chandos performance in the shade.

Competition in the Beach sonata is not limited to that earlier Chandos reading, of course, but Little and Lenehan provide an authoritative and red-blooded romantic vista from which to survey its most attractive lyric contours. In the Smyth there’s less competition. The redoubtable Renate Eggebrecht recorded it with CÚline Dutilly for Troubadisc (TRO CD03) back in 1990 in the context of a 2-CD set of Smyth’s chamber music. This was a brave undertaking and served listeners well enough for some time but the clinical recording and Eggebrecht’s characteristically wiry tone means it is easily surpassed here. Little is much faster once again, most startlingly so in the slow movement where she shaves getting on for three minutes from the Troubadisc reading. In any case her sense of drama and fancy are a world apart, and her tonal resources and technical savvy similarly so. Her scherzo is the more Mendelssohnian – the sonata was dedicated to Lili, one of Mendelssohn’s daughters – and those Brahmsian influences are absorbed the more cannily, the music’s occasional longueurs the better mitigated.

The two Beach morceaux are both delightfully played, the Romance in particular, which was dedicated to Maud Powell. And Clara Schumann’s lovely Romances, dedicated to Joachim, take one back from the sonatas of the 1880s and 90s to 1853.

This valuable disc, resonantly played and recorded, is the first to be released since Tasmin Little announced that she will be retiring from active performance in 2020. Let’s hope that Chandos has booked Potton Hall for a raft of follow-up sessions to keep her many admirers satisfied and the repertoire enhanced by her art.

Jonathan Woolf

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