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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin sonata in E minor, Op.82 [27:26]
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Romance [7:02]
Kate WHITLEY (b.1989)
Three pieces for violin and piano [11:14]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Romance, Op.38 [10:43]
John ADAMS (b.1947)
Road Movies [16:34]
Traditional, arranged by Callum Smart (b.1996)
Amazing Grace [2:05]
Callum Smart (violin)
Richard Uttley (piano)
rec. April 2020 Stoller Hall, Manchester, UK

Back in 2012 I had the great pleasure of reviewing a performance by the European Union Chamber Orchestra (EUCO), making a rare visit to my hometown. The soloist, on that occasion, was violinist Callum Smart, who was only thirteen when he won the string section of the highly-prestigious 2010 BBC Young Musicians’ Competition. When he appeared with the EUCO, a couple of years later, he was taking his school exams at the same time.

So when I recently saw that Smart had just brought out his third CD on the UK-based Orchid Classics Label, I didn’t hesitate to get hold of a copy.

Smart studied both in America, and the UK, and says that the CD – aptly and succinctly titled Transatlantic, ‘is a musical selection from the past to present day’ of the two countries, where he has spent most of his time so far. Joined by his regular duo-partner Richard Uttley, the CD is exactly as Smart describes it – a highly-entertaining mix of styles and genres encompassing music from the start of the twentieth century right up to April 2020.

The latter date is significant, since it encompasses the period of lockdown, triggered by the global pandemic. Smart goes on to add that his choice of repertoire was born out of this time spent in quarantine, which gave him (and, I suspect, quite a lot of us, too) time for inner reflection. This then enabled him to pick pieces instinctively, rather than trying to shoe-horn them into some kind of random order, with a pretty tenuous connection or ‘programme’ between them.

Transatlantic opens, in fact, with its most substantial work, Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor of 1918, a work that has attracted the attention of many eminent players over the years, from Nigel Kennedy back in 1984, Tasmin Little, Lydia Mordkovitch, Maxim Vengerov, Midori and, most recently, Jennifer Pike.. My first impression listening to Smart’s account was one of spaciousness, certainly avoiding the need to overcook any passages of quasi-virtuoso writing, because that’s simply not what this work is all about. There are recoded versions out there, where at least two minutes or so have been shaved off the total playing-time, whereas Smart’s performance very much shares the architecture of Kennedy’s reading, especially in terms of length. Kennedy, of course studied with Yehudi Menuhin, who provides the final link back to Elgar himself.

I have to say I really enjoyed Smart’s take on the Elgar, so much so that on more than one occasion I actually followed the playing score throughout. This proved an absolute revelation, because every single annotation you see in the composer’s score, you hear simultaneously in the performance. To this, of course, Smart and Uttley bring their own idiosyncratic thoughts and stylistic nuances, but, at the end of the day, it is always what Elgar wrote that is at the heart of the reading. Other versions might veer in the direction of what they thought Elgar had intended, or even worse, what they felt the composer should have intended. Smart has that invaluable knack of being able to see the whole picture – a point of climax in the opening Allegro needs to impress, but there are always bigger ones waiting around the corner, especially in the Finale. We’re all familiar with sayings like ‘he could make the violin sing – or speak’ – rather simplistic expressions that don’t normally sit too well in a formal review. But in the case of Smart’s Elgar, they really sum it up to a tee, when you appreciate the gorgeous, rich tone he elicits from his violin by Carlo Bergonzi, (c.1730-35). A great CD opener, on the one hand, but equally an excellent performance of an iconic work which I feel is now up there with the best of them.

If you’re at all acquainted with the music of Amy Beach, then you’re going to have a pretty good idea what the next piece, her seven-minute Romance. is going to be all about. Suffice it to say you won’t be disappointed, and it’s a charming out-pouring of emotion, ideally suited to the violin’s cantilena, cast in ternary form – calm and sheer beauty of tone in the outer two sections, with just a little more pace of gentle aggression in the middle – altogether, a real tear-jerker from the salon-music genre.

Lest we continue to wallow in such expansive textures and harmonies, British composer, Kate Whitley’s Three Pieces for violin and piano (2014) provide something of a rude awakening. Apparently inspired by Janáček’s Viola Sonata, they ‘possess a similarly taut, skittish energy and sense of intimate and intense dialogue between the protagonists’. I did find the middle piece (Teneramente) especially moving, but I do think all three do benefit from repeated hearings.

We remain on our side of the pond, for another excursion into the realms of romanticism, with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Romance, a piece he also set for violin and orchestra. Of mixed-race birth, Coleridge achieved such success that he was referred to by white New York musicians as the ‘African Mahler’, when he had three tours of the States in the early 1900s.

Again, after such a sugary, yet never merely mawkish confection, we return to more modern times with John Adam’s Road Movies, of which the American composer provides a detailed description in the sleeve-note. If you know the music of John Cage, then you should recognise the stylistic similarity from the very first bar. Road Movie consists of three roughly-equal-length pieces, making it the second longest work in total on the CD. Here I found the final piece – ‘40% swing’ the most exciting and captivating, where Adams has successfully merged his minimalist style with a strong hint of jazz, something which the two performers pull off with the greatest panache.

And so to the final number on the CD, which Smart himself wrote while during the first lockdown – a solo arrangement of the traditional melody Amazing Grace – which Joanna Wyld’s interesting and factual sleeve-notes describe as ‘a piece which has become a powerful symbol of transatlantic creativity, with its universal message of finding hope in adversity’. It might also be considered as one of the first recorded examples of ‘Lockdown Music’ in years to come. It’s a sensitive arrangement that works well, and again acknowledges the simple sincerity of the melody, without feeling the need to expose it to all manner of virtuosic pyrotechnics, and extravagant harmonic tweaks, as might have been par for the course, back in, say, Paganini’s time.

So there you have it, a CD which ticks all the boxes. First of all there is a clear rationale about the choice of pieces, with something for virtually every taste, and varying from well-known pillars of the violin repertoire, like the Elgar, to music of complete contrast like Kate Whitley’s Three Pieces. There’s the immediate melodic appeal of two virtually-guaranteed tear-jerkers from the pen of Amy Beach and Coleridge-Taylor respectively, and the unique style of John Adams, here spiced up with some potent jazz elements.

If I do have any reservation at all about this exciting new release, it’s merely that, as a pianist, I would just love for there to have been a role for the piano in the closing Amazing Grace arrangement while, of course, I appreciate only too well, however, the implications of self-isolation, especially during the initial lockdown period.

Callum Smart and Richard Uttley here make a formidable partnership, which encompasses not only technical prowess, a well-honed sense for interpretation, and, most importantly a true feeling of shared empathy, not just for the works played, but also in the guise of two good friends simply enjoying making music together. The excellence of the recording faithfully captures even the smallest detail, all of which conspire to make the overall appeal of Transatlantic hard to refute.

And who knows, the CD, released a few days before Thanksgiving, and at a time of transition for both nations, might also assume the role of some kind of musical entente cordiale.
Philip R Buttall

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