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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp (1916) GP178 [9:20]
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Naïades: Fantasy Sonata for flute and harp (1971) [12:17]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Suite for flute, viola and harp (1968) [10:24]
William ALWYN
Crépuscule for solo harp (1955) [3:23]
Two Folk Tunes for viola and harp (c.1936) [6:08]
Malcolm LIPKIN (1932-2017)
Trio for flute, viola and harp (1982) [14:41]
Paul PATTERSON (b. 1947)
Canonic Lullaby for flute and harp (2016) [7:24]
Paul LEWIS (b. 1943)
Divertimento for flute, viola and harp (1992) [13:15]
Aurora Trio
rec. 15, 16 and 18 August 2020, St John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK

This delightful programme opens with Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp, written in 1916 in memory of his many friends who had died during the failed Easter Uprising in Eire. Yet, as the liner notes propose, this piece is not descriptive of the events of that troubled time. It is an elegy for the departed. Stylistically, the Trio is a balance of romanticism and impressionism, with more than a hint of Celtic Twilight. Due to the historical circumstances, this final element is a little muted. Perhaps the optimism of the Twilight years had ceased to inflame Bax. The listener cannot fail to be impressed by the instrumentation of this work: it is balanced perfectly in every way.

I think that John McCabe was being a little unfair towards Alan Rawsthorne’s Suite for flute, viola and harp. In his Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a Composer (OUP, 1999, p. 278), he wrote “that this is hardly an important work, and the melodic material is in itself not particularly memorable, but as a divertissement it is sweet and charming, with a vernal freshness reflecting Rawsthorne’s pastoral side”. On the other hand, the critic at the Yorkshire Post (13 February 1969, p. 2) insists that “the three movements show the composer working in a darker, more sombre field than that which we normally associate him…” I tend to see this is a deeply expressive and quite serious piece. It is not really a divertimento, if that form is defined as a work of “light and entertaining nature”.

The Suite has three varied movements that often shimmer rather than declaim. It has been suggested that it was devised in homage to the suites of the Baroque period but I feel that this may be a bit imaginative. Structurally, Rawsthorne has used a series or tone-row as the basis of this Suite, but this does not lie heavy on the result. Completed in 1968, the piece was dedicated to the Robles Trio (Christopher Hyde-Smith, John Underwood and Marisa Robles), and premiered at the Purcell Room in London on 15 November of the same year.

Three works by William Alwyn are included here. Two Folk Tunes for cello and piano were written in the 1930s; the exact date is unclear. They were arranged for viola and harp by the Scottish violist Watson Forbes and published by Oxford University Press in 1935. (The track listing states that this is a world premiere recording, there is an early 78 rpm record from c.1940, with Watson Forbes and the harpist Maria Korchinska.) A Meditation on a Norwegian folk song fragment is followed by the Irish folk tune Who’ll buy my besoms? The first is gentle and sometimes almost impressionistic in effect, and the second is jaunty. Both are supported by rich harmonies. (A besom is a broom made from twigs tied around a stick.)

Crépuscule for solo harp, written in November 1955, was dedicated to Sidonie Goossens who gave the premiere on Christmas Eve that year. It originally had a provisional title of “The Snows of Yesteryear”. This little piece suggests a “cold clear winter’s night with the stars glowing sharply in the sky, and the ground glittering with frosted snow”. I think that the draft cognomen is more appropriate than crépuscule or twilight. (This is not a premiere recording either. The piece was released in 1994 on Chandos CHAN 9197, and was played by Ieuan Jones.)

Alwyn’s latest work here is the 1971 Naïades: Fantasy-Sonata for flute and harp. This is one of the most notable works written for the flute by an English composer. Every school child knows that the title relates to mythical female beings, the Nymphs (often associated with streams and running water), servants to the Pantheon of Gods. The piece was largely composed at Alwyn’s home in Blythburgh. He wrote: “My studio overlooks the river Blyth – tidal waters flanked by a broad expanse of reedy marshes, haunt of shrill seabirds. To wander there on a summer evening, when the reeds are a rustling sheet of gold, and the water the colour of the ‘wine-dark’ sea, is to believe again in Pan and Syrinx, sense the presence of Undine [Ondine], and hear the Naïades sporting in the shallows, hidden from mortal sight by the shrouding reeds." Yet, this is not necessarily descriptive music: it stands on its own feet without the imagery of Mount Helicon, and its bountiful springs, translated to Suffolk.
The effect of this work is that of a Greek pastoral, written by an Englishman and nodding to the Frenchmen Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc. And sometimes there is even a hint of fellow Northants composer Malcolm Arnold. Naïades was written for, and dedicated to, the husband-and-wife team of flautist Christopher Hyde-Smith and harpist Marisa Robles.

Little information is given in the liner notes about Malcolm Lipkin’s Trio for flute, viola and harp. This satisfying work is the most challenging on this disc. It was composed in 1982 for the Faber Trio, who premiered the work at that year’s Rye Festival. The Trio has three movements. The Variations change mood rapidly, from the enigmatic to the playful. A “contemplative” Intermezzo contradicts its definition as a short, light entr’acte: it is sullen and melancholy. The Finale is a grotesque dance. Taken as a whole, this remarkable work is a million miles away from most of the pieces here.

I do not consider Paul Patterson’s Canonic Lullaby to be a lullaby. For me there is a watery feel to this music. It would be better defined as a Barcarolle: it conjures up a Venetian or Mediterranean atmosphere. Although it is mostly cool and restrained, there are moments of passion and involved debate. It is quite beautiful and always thoughtful. The Lullaby was premiered in Germany in 2016 and was first heard in the United Kingdom at Watford the following year.

Brighton-born Paul Lewis can always be relied upon to deliver some delightfully scored music. The 1992 Divertimento is no exception. Every note exudes “Gallic charm and nonchalance.” It has been noted that many pieces for the flute/viola/harp combination can be rather “moody and introspective”, so this frothy, sunny and invariably happy music acts as a good balancing act in any recital programme. It has three attractive and well-balanced movements. The March is hardly military in tone; it evokes a gentle promenade in a French town. There is some lovely flutter tonguing on the flute here. The Love Song, despite the composer’s assurance that it is dedicated to family and friends, past, present and future, does really conjure up a little romance in some sequestered French village. Critics have seen hints of Ravel’s ubiquitous Pavane pour une infante défunte, but I just find it a lovely and romantic ‘hit’. The final Waltz is not meant to be danced to. It is a parody, and a highly successful one at that. As implied above, the entire composition is evocative of La Belle France, a place that Paul Lewis has a soft spot for. It is a Divertimento of great skill and invention. No wonder it is one of the composer’s most popular works.

I cannot fault the performance or production. The playing is perfect. Each work is given with skill, thought and enthusiasm (where appropriate). The liner notes are by various hands, and are always relevant and informative. There are the usual helpful composer biographies.

Since Theodore Dubois’s Terzettino composed in 1905, and Debussy’s more high-profile 1915 Sonata, there have been more examples of this instrumental make-up. The four works for this combination here are important and enjoyable examples of British composers’ endeavour. Patterson’s and Alwyn’s works for other combinations are worthy of the listener’s attention. It is great that they are collected here. Several more British examples deserve to be recorded.

John France
Aurora Trio:
Emma Halnan (flute), Jordan Sian (viola), Heather Wrighton (harp)

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