Sunday, 17 October 2010

William Wordsworth: Cello Music

The British Music Society has recently released a fine CD of cello and piano music. It includes works by Josef Holbrooke, William Busch and William Wordsworth.
I first came across William Wordsworth on the old Lyrita recording (RCS13) of his Piano Sonata, Op.13 which was coupled with the Cheesecombe Suite, Op.27 and the Ballade, Op.41. I was very impressed with this music but did not expect to hear much more from his pen. A few years later, about 1986, I was staying at a bed and breakfast in Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. One wet day the lady of the house allowed me to look at her record collection. Amongst the Delibes and Schubert was an LP of music by Wordsworth. So I had an enjoyable hour listening to the String Quartet, Op. 30, the Three Wordsworth Lyrics, Op.45 and the Four Lyrics, Op.17. The record player was not great, but I got the message: this was a composer I could do business with. Finally, in 1990 Lyrita (SRCD 207) issued the First and Second Symphonies. These were eloquent and powerful additions to the symphonic repertoire that had lain undiscovered for too long. And then virtually nothing – until this present disc.

Two of the composer’s three Cello Sonatas are presented on this CD alongside the Nocturne, Op.29 and the Scherzo, Op.42. I would suggest beginning the exploration of this music with the Scherzo which was written in 1949 at a time when the composer was at his most successful – at least in eyes of the public. This is a short piece that hovers somewhere between Bartok and something a little bit more British. It is a work that places huge demands on both soloists with complex chromatic writing and incisive rhythms. The programme notes point out that there is no trio section as such; on the other hand a long ‘espressivo’ tune ties the work to its British roots.
The Nocturne (1946) was originally written for the viola da gamba, but was reworked for cello. The opening bars suggest that this is a reflective and introverted piece. However the middle section becomes much more animated with an intense relationship building up between piano and a cadenza-like line for the cellist. The music calms down and the opening mood is restored. Nevertheless, all is not as it seems. The work does not close with a sense of calm, but with suppressed despair.
Turning attention to the two cello sonatas. Wordsworth had already composed his Sonata No.1 for cello in E, Op. 9 back in 1937. Unfortunately, this is not presently available on CD. The programme notes suggest that the Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op. 66 is the composer’s most important work for cello and piano. It was composed in 1959, the year that he met Dmitri Shostakovich and it certainly manages to reflect some of the musical thought of that composer. However, I have to disagree with Malcolm MacDonald in his view that this present work is ‘often depressive’ although I agree with him that it is certainly ‘dark-hued’. Certainly, there is no doubt that this is a deeply serious work – yet the Sonata is in a rhapsodic form that balances an unyielding musical force with a strong sense of the lyrical to great effect. Although it is written in a single movement, it is subdivided into three sections with the two outer ones being thematically related. The ‘adagio’ is a different matter. This is much more expressive and is largely introspective, without becoming too disheartening. Scott Goddard, writing in a contemporary review, has suggested, ‘The whole work has the quality of intelligent communication between two interested parties intent of solving a mutually rewarding problem.’ It is a good summary of this fine work that most certainly should be in the repertoire of all cellists. The work was first performed at the Wigmore Hall with William Pleeth and Margaret Good.
The last of Wordsworth’s pieces on this CD is the Sonata for Violoncello, Op.70. This was written in 1961 around the time that the composer had returned to Scotland. Compared to the ‘large-scale and strenuous’ G minor Sonata, this is a much more relaxed piece that surely owes more to J.S. Bach than to more contemporary composers. The work is written in a well-balanced three movements with the slow movement being first. Perhaps the most impressive part of this work is the fine ‘allegro scherzando’ which contrasts disjointed melodic phrases with an eerie essay in harmonics. The final bars are complex and involve chords and pizzicato. The third movement opens with a ‘sostenuto’ passage before launching into a ‘rough, acidulated’ jig-like ‘allegro.’ The sleeve notes point out that the final coda reveals this jig as a variation on the sonata’s opening theme. I do not normally get pleasure from music for solo cello, but this Sonata is both enjoyable and often quite moving. Once again it demands recognition: there are other solo cello works that Bach, Britten and Kodaly!

William Wordsworth's cello music can be heard on British Music Society BMS436CD

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

1 comment:

Mathias Richter said...

By the way, there is another recording of the g minor sonata op.66 by Raphael Wallfisch. I don't know when it was made but it has been broadcast by German radio some twenty years ago. I was a teenager then but I recorded and kept it because it was such a rarity. But I must confess I wasn't that much impressed then. It's quite a gloomy piece for a youngster. Nevertheless I bought the Lyrita CD of the two symphonies in the 90s to wich I turn again every year. (It contains the Nos. 2 and 3, John!) Very sad that they didn't continue the cycle. The booklet states that the 6th hasn't even been premiered.
I think he is a find for those who love their Shostakovich. But he speaks with an unmistakeable English accent.