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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]

In the month that Tasmin Little announced that she will be giving up live performance soon, this wonderful disc arrived for me to review; I have only had the pleasure of witnessing Little perform live twice, and I wish I had been able to see her more; it was not just the memory of her performances that I took away, but also of her sheer enthusiasm and the way that she engaged with her audience, that I will remember most. In this recording we get a real sense of what the listening public will miss, her musicality is wonderful, and the way that she is able effortlessly to bring the best out of these works, making the music, especially the two sonatas, the stars of this disc is wonderful.

This disc offers music by three composers who made their way through a man’s world, and certainly made their mark upon it. The first of these composers is Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, who is credited as the first successful American women composer of ‘art music’, and the first to have a symphony published and performed in America. She is represented here by the wonderful A minor Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 34, which is regarded as one of her most important and influential works, as well as two short works, the Romance Op. 23 and the Invocation Op. 55. The Sonata dates from 1896 and is the longest piece on the disc; it is imbued with a strong sense of romanticism and passion, with the almost sombre tone of the opening setting the tone of what is to follow. I have enjoyed both of Ambache’s recordings of Amy Beach’s music, again on Chandos, the earliest of which contains a good recording of this Sonata (CHAN 10162), but in comparison Tasmin Little’s account is superior to that of Gabrielle Lester and Diane Ambache. The swifter tempos of Little, more than four minutes overall, certainly make it a more passionate performance without sounding rushed, one that holds your attention and makes you want to sit down and listen again and again. I have now heard a few recordings of this Sonata, and I must say that Little and John Lenehan are the only performers that really get to the heart of this music, with the spirit of joy in the second movement Scherzo, with the violin dancing above the piano line just one example of how they bring out the passion of this work. The two shorter works by Amy Beach at the end of this disc include one of her most popular pieces, the deeply romantic Romance Op. 23, which is here given a sublime performance, as is the lovely Invocation Op. 55, but it is the Sonata which is the star of the show and rightly steals the limelight here.

The Drei Romanzen, Op.22 or Three Romances, by Clara Schumann date from 1853 after she had moved to Düsseldorf with her husband Robert. Clara Schumann famously stated that “Women are not born to compose”, yet inspired by Joseph Joachim, to whom she dedicated them, she composed these three short pieces, which, I think, were the only pieces she composed for violin and piano. Joachim toured these pieces to great acclaim. The Romances are influenced by Robert and she even references a theme from her husband’s own Violin Sonata No. 1 in the first of the three. The second Romance is the most playful, whilst the final, like the first has a more wistful intensity about it. Little and Lenehan are swifter than my only other recording of the Romances, that by Nurit Stark and Cédric Pescia on Claves (CL 501502), and this certainly brings out the more spirited nature of the Allegreto middle Romance whilst not loosing any of the pathos of the two slower outer pieces.

Ethel Smyth has too often been described as a rabble rouser of women’s suffrage, with people seeing her ‘The March of the Women’ and not much else, but she was an important composer as well as a political activist who was willing to go to prison for her beliefs. She was, against the wishes of her father, one of the first women to study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory, although she found the standard of education lacking and left after a year. In her later life she won many awards and became the first woman recipient of an honorary doctorate of music at Oxford University. Her music is finally being recorded, with her Mass leading the way, although I came to know her music through the CPO discs of her chamber and piano music (999 352-2; 999 327-2). These discs show a great deal of musicality, something which is further reinforced through this recording of her Violin Sonata of around 1887. The Sonata has featured on disc before and I have Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman’s Naxos recording (8.572291). The Naxos account is considerably slower than Little and Lenehan’s with this new recording being tauter and more compelling. In the pensive opening Allegro moderato, in which the influence of Brahms is clearly felt, Little and Lenehan are nearly two minutes quicker, which makes the Howick and Rahman recording sound more moderato that allegro. This is followed by the boisterous Scherzo before the third movement Romanze is in E minor which, with its literary reference to Francesca da Rimini, reiterates the more lyrical character of Smyth’s music. The final movement Allegro vivace is in the form of a boisterous rondo in which the music reverts with a flourish to the home key of A minor. This is a wonderful work, and one that certainly shows Ethel Smyth as a major musical figure and not just a political activist.

Throughout this recording Tasmin Little and John Lenehan are in excellent form, their choices of tempi, though some might find them a little too fast and forceful at times, are intelligent and certainly bring the best out of this wonderful music. They are helped by Chandos’ usual brilliant recorded sound and sympathetic acoustic at Potton Hall, as well as excellent booklet notes, with the result being a disc that will certainly be a front runner in my deliberations for my choice for Recording of the Year.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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