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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Sonata in E minor, Op.82 (1918) [25:36]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Violin Sonata in A minor (1954) [26:50]
The Lark Ascending (1914) [14:18]
Jennifer Pike (violin)
Martin Roscoe (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN20156 [67:05]

Though it’s not really the case, it feels as if the mantle of Tasmin Little has fallen in Jennifer Pike’s direction, at least as far as Chandos’ enthusiasm for British violin music goes. Little recorded the Elgar sonata for another label, though the Vaughan Williams would have been fertile ground for a further volume of her British Violin Sonatas series on Chandos, had retirement not brought that marque to a close. In Pike, however, we have a musician of proven attainment whose discs have also won acclaim and accompanied as she is by Martin Roscoe, who has also often accompanied Little, we have a strong duo.

Little and Roscoe recorded the Elgar for GMN over two decades ago, an expansive powerful performance that showed one didn’t need to replicate Nigel Kennedy’s very slow tempo for the slow movement (in this he followed his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin) to achieve a satisfactory concertante approach. Pike and Roscoe, in his second recording of the sonata, prove to have their own persuasive ideas. She doesn’t vibrate as heavily as Little, nor is she as elastic in terms of rubato, but she is a more directional performer even though the two teams’ tempo for the first movement are almost identical. Pike scores strongly in driving to the peaks of phrases and in drawing the expressive threads together; few other modern performers match Midori, with Robert McDonald (Sony), who drive passionately through this movement though Lorraine McAslan and John Blakely (Decca) do so in the second and third movements, and Vengerov is good in the second movement too. Pike’s linearity of approach is especially evident in the central movement where, more than any contemporary performer except possibly McAslan, she seems to have taken the lead from Albert Sammons’ 1935 78rpm set with William Murdoch, still comfortably the fast performance on disc. She binds the quixotic elements very adeptly, those quick pizzicati ringing out, the music moving with phrasal directness, its Schumannesque inheritance never overplayed. In the finale she plays the reminiscence section with speed and tonal purity, its passion hardly sublimated when played this way – too slow and it sags – and leading to a triumphant ending.

The field in the Elgar is crowded and there are a number of other performances I could have noted – such as the excellent Simone Lamsma, with pianist Yurie Miura, on Naxos – but the field for VW’s Sonata is much smaller. It’s not the composer’s most popular piece but it has interesting features, including the finale which is a Theme and Variations. The trickiest thing is not this finale though, but the negotiation of the first movement where its fantasia nature can lead some performers into too indulgent an approach. Pike and Roscoe are close to the precedent provided by Menuhin pretty much throughout and prove resilient interpreters finely attuned to the music’s flowing rhetoric. Thus, they move from the Largamente passage in the opening movement back to the tempo primo with great perception. Susanne Stanzeleit and Julian Jacobson on Cala and Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard follow the Menuhin paradigm with the exception that Marshall-Luck (on EM Records) takes his time in the Theme and Variations. In short this is a fluent, elegant, alert and sharply characterised reading – the finale is especially finely done at a sensible tempo. Ensemble is solid, give and take assured. I’ve not mentioned the premiere recording with the work’s dedicatee Frederick Grinke and pianist Michael Mulliner, made in mono in 1955. It’s breathtakingly fast, lithe and full of furioso drama. Still, Pike catches some of Grinke’s veiled viola-like tone in the Scherzo and plays to her own considerable strengths throughout.

The final piece is The Lark Ascending in the original violin-and-piano version of 1914. It’s a great pity that when it came to the first recording of the piece, in orchestral guise, Isolde Menges took the solo role and not the dedicatee Marie Hall. It’s true that the vogue Hall enjoyed had somewhat passed, not least after her marriage, but it would still have been valuable to have heard her performance – not that Menges wasn’t a marvellous player, obviously. Pike has in fact recorded the ‘band’ version for Naxos with the Chamber Orchestra of New York, Salvatore Di Vittorio directing. Needless to say, the piano original requires a greater focus of tempo with the result that she is here two minutes faster than her other self, but she plays with characteristic purity and refinement and it’s certainly good to hear this version once in a while.

There are thoughtful booklet notes from Conor Farrington and a typically sympathetic Potton Hall acoustic. There’s no indication that this is anything other than one of Pike’s ‘country by country’ sonata surveys for Chandos – she has recorded a French, Czech and a Polish album, which makes this her British one alongside a heavyweight Brahms-Schumann disc. In any case this latest recording is very fine and enlightening on its own terms.

Jonathan Woolf

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