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Andrew DOWNES (b. 1950)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, op.52 (1994) [15:46]
Poème: ‘The God Marduk’, op.72 (1999) [9:48]
‘Sacred Mass’ for Solo Violin, op.75 (2000) [19:24]
Sonata for Viola and Piano, op.68 (1998) [22:12]
Rupert Marshall Luck (violin, viola)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 2017, Potten Hall, Westleton, UK

I was highly impressed with my first foray into the piano music of Andrew Downes (EMR CD040-41), and I have now already enjoyed many repeated listenings of this new disc under review. It has strong tonal and rhythmic qualities which makes the music quite infectious; the more you hear it, the more you find to enjoy.

It opens with two world premiere recordings: first, the Violin Sonata dedicated to the memory of Ernest Element. Downes describes the music as being “generally warm and optimistic … to reflect the caring, generosity and great friendship offered to all with whom he came into contact by the man to whom the work is dedicated.” It is an attractive work with many changes in character. The first movement is typically English but with an edge and jazzier passages displaying a sense of fun. The slow central movement begins with a passage something like a lament which gradually becomes more animated before the music of the opening returns. The final movement begins joyously with a repeated rhythmic phrase on the piano and a contrasting melody played by the violin. This develops, until the violin takes the phrase, while the piano has a more frenetic line. This eventually leads into a more lilting, tenderer second main theme out of which the original material grows. A most enjoyable work.

The second premiere recording is of the piece based on the Poème giving this disc its eponymous title, The God Marduk. A long slow introduction for solo violin leads into a slightly swifter passage where the violin is joined first by rippling effects on the piano which leads to more frenzied piano writing, matched by the violin. These differing thematic materials are in essence a series of pictures clearly illustrating the different aspects and characteristics of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon in the Mesopotamian religion.

The most intriguing work here for me is the Sacred Mass, which brings back memories of the great French organ masses. Beginning slowly and quite meditatively, the Kyrie could be seen to follow the Latin text in the way that Downes repeats the phrases with subtle changes, making it almost like a mini-set of three variations. The Gloria is meant to be the great, affirming hymn to God, and here Downes lifts the tempo of the music, introducing pizzicato sections to highlight the different sections of the text. The Credo is quite fervent whilst the Sanctus is marked by a melody almost like a plainchant, played on short. bowed notes, before returning to pizzicato in the second part of the movement. In contrast, the Benedictus returns us to the more sincere, meditative music before the brief re-appearance of the pizzicato from the Sanctus towards the end. The final movement begins with some very high, slow playing before a section of music played in the mid- register of the violin before returning to the higher register in the conclusion of this quite extraordinary work.

Anyone who knows the music of Andrew Downes might find something familiar about the Viola Sonata, as it is a quite natural-sounding arrangement by Downes’ violist wife of his Horn Sonata of 1998. It is an interesting work which opens pensively, then moves into a swifter, more rhythmic section before returning to the slower tempo and a very attractive main theme. The second movement contains some ethereal piano writing with a strong viola line above, which again moves between sections of different tempo. Unusually, the final movement is the slow movement, and charming it is too, beginning with a repeated phrase on the piano, the viola eventually joining in with a theme that Vaughan Williams would have been proud of; this leads to a more animated and energetic section, where the viola and piano share the limelight before returning to the slower music with a rippling effect in the piano line; quite lovely.

This is a wonderful disc, presenting four works by Andrew Downes, each with some memorable sections and a strong sense of the twentieth century English musical tradition. The playing of Rupert Marshall Luck and Duncan Honeybourne is excellent throughout and makes a strong case for the music. The extensive booklet notes provide an introduction to the composer by Duncan Honeybourne, followed by a fifteen-page essay on the music containing no fewer than fifteen musical examples. The sound, as with all the EM Records discs that I own, is very good; the music is captured in a quite natural acoustic. This is a lovely disc will be enjoyed greatly by all followers of English music.

Stuart Sillitoe

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