Chairman: Matthew Eve


Sonata No 1
for Violin and Piano
for Solo Violin
Sonata No. 3
for Violin and Piano

Michael Davis - Violin
Nelson Harper - Piano

Vienna Modern Masters VMM2004

Notes © Bernard Jacobson 1992

Music for Violin and Piano

Of all the instruments in common use in the Western concert world, the violin and the piano are the two that enjoy the most extensive repertoire, and are called on to enlist some of the most taxing technical and artistic abilities in its interpretation. So significant and striking, moreover, is the body of music that brings these two instruments together that we are inclined to forget how hard it is to make them really work as a duo. The differences in tuning between the stringed and the keyboard instrument make it imperative for the composer either to differentiate in turn between his styles of writing for the two, or else to make a virtue of necessity by turning an apparent problem into a constructive feature.

This recording gathers together five of the six works Wilfred Josephs has written for the violin as a recital instrument. All of them display a fine perception of the needs and potential of the violin, and the four that pair it with the piano demonstrate impressively how seeming in-compatibles may be brought into creative harmony. Josephs is not himself a violinist, and those of his friends to whom over the years he has introduced his new works at the piano might be inclined to dispute his title to being, beyond some fairly rudimentary point, a pianist. But then, as great a composer as Berlioz remarked how glad he was not to be a pianist when he heard some of the inane invention that pianist-composers were seduced by sheer keyboard facility into allowing to pass for composition.

What may fairly be said is that there is a distinction between music for the violin and violin music, and there is a distinction between music for the piano and piano music. Josephs' essays belong in the first category in each of those pairings. There is no more disadvantage here than attaches to, say, Brahms' violin writing in contrast with Paganini's. Josephs' writing is that of an enormously experienced composer who has come to know all the instruments intimately in orchestral and chamber contexts through the production of an oeuvre already numbering some 170 pieces (and through years of experience as a conductor of film and television scores). You will not find Paganinian finger-wizardry in his violin parts or Lisztian fireworks in his piano writing, but you will not find any awkwardness or lack of aural imagination either.

Technical mastery goes hand in hand with musical inventiveness in Josephs' work. It was not achieved easily or quickly, but the signs were always there. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 24 July 1927, Josephs began composition studies part time under Arthur Milner while at the same time qualifying as a dentist. In 1954 he entered the Guildhall School of Music in London on a scholarship to study with Alfred Niernan, and in 1958 a Leverhulme Scholarship took him to Paris for a year's study under Max Deutsch.

Early works had already shown Josephs to be a composer with a recognizable personality of his own, but one not yet emancipated from the fairly innocuous style endemic on the insular English musical scene of the time. Now a wider perspective opened for him, and the issue of 12-note serialism was joined in earnest. Max Deutsch was a distinguished Schoenberg pupil. His teaching helped the young composer to assimilate the lessons of the Second Viennese Schcol and to come out on the other side. From the early 1960s on, Josephs' music shows an arrestingly individual use of techniques derived from serialism while liberating itself with increasing sureness from the grip of 12-note chromaticism. In the gradual recent shift of contemporary music back to practices once regarded as seditious - the expressive use of tonal harmony, and particularly the writing of real tunes - it was natural that a composer blessed with Josephs' outstanding melodic gift should soon have found himself in the vanguard. But the broadly arching melodies of his later music gain enormously in strength and cogency from the constructive interaction of the intervallic cells they grow from. Josephs' serial legacy, in other words, continues to be productive capital for him.

Along with these resources, virtually all Josephs' music has displayed a still more striking gift: the gift of the trouvaille (a "find" or "discovery" or "invention'). In every work, he has been able (rather like Schubert in his song accompaniments) to seize and fix a moment of inspiration that renders the piece unique. It need not be - often isn't - an inspiration on the grand scale: but it is almost always something that the listener carries away as a permanent marker in the memory. The result is that, while it would be hard to deny Josephs the claim to a distinctly personal voice, he can never be accused (as composers as widely separated in time and style as Vivaldi and Bruckner have sometimes been accused) of writing the same work many times over.

The present recording begins with a piece - the Chacony for violin and piano, Op. 38. composed between April 1962 and 1963 - that in a sense is all one big trouvaille. The title is an old English form of the term "chaconne," which, like "passacaglia," commonly denotes a set of variations on a ground bass in the form of a triple-rhythm dance. But what Josephs has done here is to write variations, not on a bass or any other kind of extended theme, but on a single note. In this case, unlike that of Purcell's Fantasia on One Note (where the note is sustained continuously), the fundamental B natural comes and goes, advances and retreats, and is frequently present only by implication. It is the composer's highly purposeful melodic and harmonic writing that makes every aspect of the piece sound like either B natural or a suspension or appoggiatura or other commentary on B natural.

The earliest piece on the disc, written in one day, on 11 October 1955, is Siesta, Op. 8, whose character is suggested by the sly superscription at the head of the score: "He is asleep in the sun: she tempts him but habits die hard - now is siesta time - only for siesta." Even this unpretentious miniature has its trouvaille - in this case, a subtly convincing interchange between 6/8 and 3/4 meters that may owe something to Ravel (think of the slow movement of the G major Piano Concerto) but sounds entirely personal.

In between, we hear three of Josephs' four sonata compositions for the violin: with piano, the Sonata No.1, Op. 46, of 1965 and the Sonata No, 3, Op. 147, of 1986-87; and, unaccompanied, the Solo Violin Sonata, Op. 15, completed on 29 July 1957. The First Sonata is laid out on thoroughly original lines in six movements, and neatly illustrates Josephs' fresh approach to the functions of individual movements within a cyclic structure. The delicately understated Intermezzo that stands second makes a modified return appearance (as Reprise) after a furiously driving fourth movement that many composers might have been tempted to use as finale. To much more imaginative effect Josephs here makes his Reprise lead directly into a last short slow movement where the characters of the two instruments are brought into a lucid final unity-through-contrast.

Smaller in physical proportions, and more gnomically allusive in manner, the Third Sonata concludes with a sustained set of variations whose theme looks indirectly back to the opening of the first movement's slow introduction. Here the most trouvaille-like movement is the middle one, marked to be played as fast as possible. This scurrying little piece recalls some of Brahms' lighter scherzo-cum-intermezzos, just as the sonata as a whole follows that master in moving, with increasing maturity, towards a heightened compression of scale and simplicity of melodic manner. Some composers grow longer-winded with advancing years: Josephs, like Brahms, goes in the opposite direction.

All of these violin and piano works are inventive in different ways in their instrumental interrelations. The Solo Violin Sonata must of course make its points without such combinations of resource, and it does so with remarkable assurance, reinforcing melodic clarity with real and implied harmonic writing of surprising power and breadth.

These five works are all dedicated to their performer here, Michael Davis (with Robert Sutherland in the case of the Violin Sonata No. 1). It was Mr. Davis, moreover, who premiered four of the five: Siesta in London in 1955 or 1956, the Chacony at Carnegie Hall, New York, with Richard Woitach on 23 October 1963, the Sonata No.1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with Robert Sutherland on 22 October 1965, and the Sonata No.3 at Wigmore Hall, London, with Nelson Harper on 11 December 1989. The Solo Violin Sonata was first played by Alan Loveday at Wigmore Hall on 1 April 1958.

Notes by Bernard Jacobson

Artistic Director, Het Residentie Orkest (Hague Philharmonic)

© 1992

The recording was produced with the generous assistance of a grant from The Ohio State University.

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