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Entente Musicale
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin Sonata in B major Op. posth. (1892-93) [25:38]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Cherry Ripe 'for Fritz Kreisler' (1911) [3:17]
Valse Caprice Op.74 No.7 - arr. A.W. Kramer (1911) [4:18]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1916-17) [13:26]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pièce en forme de habañera - arr. Jascha Heifetz (1907) [3:03]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor (1909) [27:40]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Mediterranean - arr. Jascha Heifetz (1920) [3:10]
Clare Howick (violin)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
Rec. Wathen Hall, St. Paul's School, London 24-25 October 2019

This new disc from violinist Clare Howick and pianist Simon Callaghan is another example of the kind of intelligent programme, superbly played, presented and engineered that has become something of a 'house speciality' for SOMM. The skill is in taking composers or repertoire that is at least reasonably familiar which through the musical juxtapositions and excellence of performances are seen in new and fascinating light.

With the exception of bon bouches from Cyril Scott and Arnold Bax - and even they exist in alternative versions with the exception of the Scott Valse Caprice - all of the music presented here has been recorded many times in excellent performances. So why should the curious listener wish to add these potential repetitions to their collection? Simply because the insightful and exploratory nature of these performances reveal aspects and alignments to this repertoire that I had not previously considered. The disc is given the umbrella title of "Entente Musicale" and the date range of the works is from Delius' early Violin Sonata of 1892 through to Bax's whimsical Mediterranean of 1920 [although Jascha Heifetz did not make his violin transcription for another 15 years]. The linking thread is a certain Gallic spirit and as far as the British composers are concerned an absence of folk-song derived harmony or melodic shape.

Curiously, I have not heard any of Clare Howick's earlier chamber or concerto disc. Given her speciality in British repertoire and excellence of technique and interpretation the omission is one I intend to make good. Her accompanist is the ever-skilled and insightful Simon Callaghan and together they are a very impressive duet. I like the structuring of the programme very much; two substantial British sonatas frame the great Debussy Violin Sonata with miniatures by Scott, Ravel and Bax providing delightfully contrasting moods.

The disc opens with a powerful and dynamic performance of Delius' early Violin Sonata in B major. Robert Matthew-Walker in his valuable liner note points out the rarity of this key as well as the fact that the Op. posth reflects the fact that Delius carefully kept the completed manuscript unpublished during his lifetime perhaps recognising that although it did not fully reflect his developing musical aesthetic it had too many qualities and merits to be wholly discarded. For anyone unfamiliar with this work and expecting a piece in the style of Delius' later rhapsodic and harmonically ambiguous music, the muscular certainties of the sonata will come as something of a surprise. But it is worth remembering that Delius considered himself a potential violin soloist at this early point in his career and composed a series of quasi-Romantic virtuoso works which were in part one supposes to showcase his own performing talents. With most of the works offered here, alternative performances often come as part of a single composer survey. The unpublished/Op. posth nature of this sonata means that it was not included by either Ralph Holmes with Eric Fenby on Unicorn or Yehudi Menuhin also with Fenby on EMI/Warner in their recordings of the three published sonatas. It is posterity's loss that artists of their stature and empathy with Delius did not record this attractive work. Longer CD playing time has allowed the four works to appear on a single disc and there are three 'sets'; Susanne Stanzeleit on Naxos, Louise Jones on Meridian and Tasmin Little on Conifer/latterly Sony. The Jones set spreads across two discs and is presented as the "complete works for violin and piano". As such it has interest and worth but sadly Jones' playing lacks the flair and dynamism of any of her competing colleagues. Little has long been an advocate of Delius as has her accompanist here Piers Lane so her disc is one any serious Delius collector is likely to already own. The Little/Lane disc really is excellent with the youthful ardour of the work presented compellingly. But its a tribute to Howick and Callaghan that they match the older recording punch for punch. Both are excellent at marking phrases with those little tempo ebb and flows while Howick makes greater use of expressive position shifts into a note. I like the judicious use of this effect very much, it smacks of an absolute authenticity. The SOMM recording is a fraction closer and warmer than Conifer for Little. Both are again very good although the SOMM does pick up Howick's breathing which possibly some might find fractionally intrusive if listening on headphones.

Howick has made something of a speciality of Cyril Scott with one Naxos disc devoted to his sonatas and another compilation disc featuring four miniatures. Two more of the latter are included here one of which, the transcription of Cherry Ripe, was the first piece of Scott I ever knew and played. I must admit I often struggle to make sense of Scott's harmonic wanderings but in this charming little work the juxtaposition of a simple presentation of the familiar melody in the violin against an elaborately impressionistic piano accompaniment works very well.. Whereas in the Delius and elsewhere Howick favours a bold and dynamic style here she is absolutely right to be content to 'sit back' and leave the musical interest and novelty to Callaghan. The only work on this disc receiving its first recording is the transcription for violin and piano of Scott's Valse Caprice. Compared to the Heifetz arrangements elsewhere on the disc this is effective but relatively functional. Which is probably down to the fact that it was intended for the amateur/domestic market rather than the concert hall encore. But again Howick and Callaghan play it with flair and feeling.

There then follows the two works by Debussy and Ravel. Whereas the British works have nearly always been played and recorded by artists based in Britain these two works have attracted the attention of all the world's greatest players. So again credit must go to Howick and Callaghan for presenting performances that demand comparison with the best. Howick's approach is to emphasise the Romantic elements in the work. The emotions more overt, less elusive and she is willing to play the dynamics marked in the score at face value rather than tempering them. Others may find more mystery in the score - the marking of the second movement - fantasque et lèger could be seen as a description of the whole work. But what I like in Howick's performance as part of the entire recital is her challenging my expectations of a more sensuously sinuous work she reveals other strengths and parallels in this very familiar piece. Likewise Ravel's Pièce en forme de habañera which has appeared in many recital and compilation discs. I have always enjoyed Chantal Juillet's langorous performance with Pascal Rogé on Decca as part of her survey of Ravel's music for violin and piano. Again it is not a question of whether Howick and Callaghan supplant that - or other - favoured recordings, but that this new version is completely compelling, indeed hypnotically sensuous, in its own right. Throughout, as mentioned, Callaghan is a sensitive and attentive accompanist but I especially enjoyed his gently swaying playing here.

The choice of the earlier of the two Ireland sonatas is a good one. The later Second Sonata is often cited as Ireland's 'breakthrough' work, the earlier work is still of significant merit - it won the 1909 Cobbett prize for chamber music beating off a hundred other entrants. Musically it is an interesting work - confident and big-boned like the Delius, with the voice of its composer yet to be fully formed. For Ireland this makes for a fascinating fusion of Brahms out of a French near-impressionistic sensibility. Again Howick and Callaghan prove to be compelling interpreters - the performance ardent and full of vigour and finesse as required. The opening movement has the unusual marking allegro leggiadro [fast and graceful). Interesting to compare Paul Barritt on Hyperion as part of his complete survey of Ireland's violin and piano music. Barritt certainly emphasises the graceful quality aided by the slightly more diffuse Hyperion recording. Lydia Mordkovitch on Chandos is a full two minutes slower than Howick and Barritt which certainly makes for a more brooding and pensive quality but I am not absolutely convinced by this choice as it seems to undermine the youthful drive that is present. That said - Mordkovitch is very good in the central Romance and the closing capriccious allegro sciolto assai.
As with all the performances on this disc, Howick and Callaghan impress at every turn with the sense of a deeply considered and skilfully wrought performance that digs deep into the essence of the work. Alongside the Delius, I think the players are extremely successful at capturing the young composer's spirit even if ultimately that would evolve into something quite different in their respective maturities. The disc is completed by a little gem by a composer at his peak. Bax's Mediterranean is one of his most light-hearted miniatures evoking a sun-soaked landscape with none of the darker shadows that often inhabit even Bax's shortest scores. There seems to be a little confusion in Robert Matthew-Walker's liner note [has a paragraph been moved I wonder?]. He writes that "the previous summer..." following on from a reference to Scott's Valse Caprice dating from 1911. According to Graham Parlett's definitive Bax catalogue Mediterranean dates from 1920 as a piano work not the orchestral work Matthew-Walker states - the orchestral version dates a full two years later. Not that any of that really matters - it remains one of Bax's most light-hearted works and one that transcribes very well for violin. Heifetz's version sits very effectively for the violin. Possibly this is the one time in the programme where I wondered if Howick's dynamic approach worked against the essential good humour of the work.

Throughout the disc Howick's technique is wonderfully clean and secure. As mentioned her use of vibrato, portamenti and rhythmic freedom serves the music with style and sensitivity. Simon Callaghan is a pianist I have admired in reviews frequently and he proves to be as skilled an accompanist as he is a soloist. At the risk of becoming a cracked record [pardon the pun], the SOMM engineering, production and presentation is up to their usual very high standard. At just over eighty minutes in length this is a very generous collection to boot. SOMM have made something of a speciality of these anthology-type of discs - their Gluepot and Facades collections immediately spring to mind - both of which made it into my Records of the Year lists. This new disc is of a similar calibre and merit. With Tasmin Little having recently laid down her bow, there is a strong case for Clare Howick becoming the leading proponent of British violin repertoire.

A unique and successful combination of familiar repertoire given performances of the highest quality.

Nick Barnard

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