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Coleridge-Taylor chamber ALC1468
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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Petite Suite de Concert (1910)
Ballade in D minor (1895)
Spirituals (1900s?)
Clarinet Quintet in A (1896)
Virginia Eskin (piano), Michael Ludwig (violin), Harold Wright (clarinet)
Hawthorne String Quartet
rec. 1990, Astoria, USA
ALTO ALC1468 [79]

This budget price disc devoted to the chamber works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was issued in 1990 on Koch International Classics (3-7056-2 H1); the work of David Fine. This appeared at a time when there were far fewer Coleridge-Taylor CDs than there are now. Well done to Alto for sourcing the licences for this pleasant and often captivating music and producing a tautly packed and nicely documented CD. The notes are by the pianist Virginia Eskin and gifted Alto ‘yeoman’ Gavin Dixon.

The Petite Suite de Concert is in four movements (‘La Caprice de Nannette’; ‘Demande et Réponse’; ‘Un Sonnet d'Amour’ (with an anticipatory touch of Joplinesque ragtime); ‘La Tarantelle Frétillante’). The music is sprightly and is deftly spun by Eskin. Perhaps better known in its orchestral version (Heritage ~ Hyperion ~ Naxos), this suite veers pleasingly from salon sentiment into the stuff of light-hearted Dvořák, as in the Slavonic Dances.

As is often the way with ballades, this composer’s Ballade for violin and piano is a substantial passionate single movement. At almost 13 minutes playing time it’s a minute longer than the Petite Suite. Again Dvořák might well have been the composer’s style model. It has its shadowed moments to enliven and lend engagement with those lit by shafts of sunshine. It began life as a piece for orchestra in the composer’s student days at the RCM. Its appeal is to a broad constituency especially those who already enjoy the violin concertante pieces by Bruch and Saint-Saëns. It’s played here with a most welcome wildness by Michael Ludwig and Virginia Eskin. Their vision for the music is not at all careful or prissy.

Eskin then returns to stir and delight the listener with a selection of six of the Spirituals. Again her approach is liberated from any shade of Victorian religiosity. This, for example, must be one of the most cold spring-water living versions of ‘Deep River’ and it precedes Tippett’s use of the spiritual in A Child of Our Time and his free-standing choral suite Five Negro Spirituals (1958). For the record, the spirituals to be heard here are ‘Take Nabandji’; ‘Going Up’; ‘Deep River’; ‘Run, Mary, Run’; ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’ and the ‘Bamboula’. The latter is to be distinguished from the composer’s extended orchestral rhapsodic dance of the same name as recorded by Kenneth Alwyn and the Bournemouth orchestra for EMI Classics.

Alto invest almost half the playing time of this long-playing CD in the Clarinet Quintet in A (1896). The movements of this early-ish work are Allegro energico; Larghetto affetuoso; Scherzo and Finale. Harold Wright - who was principal clarinet of the Boston Symphony until his death in 1993 - is joined by the Hawthorne String Quartet (Ronan Lefkowitz (violin); Si-Jing Huang (violin); Mark Ludwig (viola); Sato Knudson (cello)). They play the work to bring to the fore every degree of its latent warmth and liveliness. A few shadows are encountered along the way, including some leering devils at the very start. There’s some much more benevolent and velvety umbrage in the finale. A most accomplished and warmingly rounded work, it echoes of Brahms and Dvořák. The slow movement has some affectionate almost-references to folksong. As for the scherzo it is by no means a Mendelssohnian thing of gossamer and moths and takes its time to breathe poetic ideas and images.

By all means progress from here to the deeply moving emotional mastery of the Violin Concerto. I should also mention recent fine chamber music discs from Hyperion and Chandos. One can hope that the companies will at some point turn to this composer’s other major works including the opera Thelma and the oratorios The Blind Girl of Castél-Cuillé, A Tale of Old Japan and Meg Blane.

From our vantage point in the third decade of the 2000s we are close to being spoilt for choice when it comes to the music of Coleridge-Taylor. This Alto disc might seem to occupy a modest niche but its strengths in beauty should not be underestimated.

Rob Barnett

Published: October 6, 2022



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