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Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) [24:06]
Lullaby (1909) [4:09]
Untitled Piece for Viola and Piano (1918) [4:50]
Chinese Puzzle (1922) [1:32]
Morpheus (1918) [7:11]
Passacaglia on an Old English Tune for Viola and Piano (1944) [6:01]
I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still (1944) [3:18]
Martin Ruman (viola), Alena Hučková (piano)
rec. 2018, Žilina, Slovakia
PAVLIK RECORDS PA0171-2-131 [51:11]

It’s encouraging to witness an upsurge in recordings of Rebecca Clarke’s music. For the ardent fan, there’s a wide choice of versions available of the Viola Sonata and the Piano Trio, her two most significant works. She began her musical life by studying the violin, and it was only when she attended the Royal College of Music that Stanford, her composition teacher, encouraged her to switch to the viola. Her studies concluded, she embarked on a career as a violist, and filled her spare time composing, completing around 100 scores, most not published in her lifetime. I find her music instantly appealing, bewitching, memorable and, at times, passionately intense. It’s tonally based, never straying far into the progressive trends in vogue at the time. Although British born, Clarke lived most of her life in the States.

In 1919, she submitted her Viola Sonata to the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts, where a competition was held. It tied first, almost taking First Prize were it not for the patron’s casting vote. That honour went to Ernest Bloch's Suite for Viola. The Sonata was her breakthrough piece, granting her a “one whiff of success” (her own words). In recent times, this captivating work has established itself as a mainstay of the viola repertoire. The Sonata is cast in three movements, the outer ones more substantial than the middle scherzo-like Vivace. Throughout, one detects the influences of Bloch, Debussy, Ravel and Vaughan Williams. In the opening Impetuoso the viola declaims with grand gesture. It begins with an improvisatory solo from the viola, which is martial in character. As it progresses, the music takes flight, with the viola rhapsodizing against a turbulent piano accompaniment. A lyrical central section provides some balm, before the movement ends with an appassionato coda. Clarke peppers the exciting Vivace second movement with some mild dissonance. The pensive Adagio, which ends the Sonata, has some moments of profound musing. Ruman and Hučková pace the movement to perfection, so that the climax registers with maximum impact. A rapturous conclusion brings the work to a close. Ruman takes every opportunity to display his fearless technique, and bathe the canvas in autumnal hues. Hučková is sensitive and responsive at every turn.

Clarke’s gift for ear-catching melody is all too evident in the six pieces for viola and piano. We open with the soothing strains of Lullaby, the earliest work on the disc, composed in 1909. There’s a veil of melancholy hanging over the piece and Ruman and Hučková  achieve spellbinding results. Morpheus, inspired by the Greek god of dreams, has a Debussian radiance, with Hučková coaxing some luscious luminous colours from her piano. Chinese Puzzle from 1922 charms with its exotic flavour. I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still, penned as late as 1944, closed the door on any further viola compositions. It’s an arrangement of a Scottish song taken from the New National Songbook, edited by her teacher Stanford.

This is a beautifully recorded release, a winner, aided by a sympathetic acoustic. Ruman and Hučková’s playing is engaging and casts a fascinating spell. I’ll be returning to it many times.

Stephen Greenbank

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