Sunday, 6 February 2011

Donald Tovey: Chamber Music on Guild

There are two important ideas to hold in equilibrium in any review of Donald Francis Tovey’s music. Firstly, the listener must expect that most of his works could be classed as ‘retro’ and, secondly, in spite of this warning, all the compositions that I have heard are marked by a sense of beauty, design and emotional impact that makes them largely timeless.
Tovey is fairly and squarely in the mould of Brahms: there is virtually nothing in his music that could be described as modern. In spite of composing during the first forty years of the twentieth century, little of that era appears to have ‘rubbed off.’ It is hard to imagine that this period included such works as Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Walton’s Facade or Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Even the post-romanticism of Edward Elgar or Richard Strauss seems to have passed him by: the impressionistic strains of Debussy and Delius are ignored. As far as I am aware, folksong is nowhere to be seen in his music. It is not as if he did not know, understand and appreciate all this new music as any glance at his magnum opus the Essays of Musical Analysis will show: it is simply that he appears to have been satisfied with the musical language he adopted as his own.

Although there are plenty of biographical details available on the Internet, a short note will be useful to some readers. Donald Francis Tovey was born at Eton, the son of a schoolmaster, on 17 July 1875. He trained as a musical scholar, as a pianist and as a composer. It was this latter occupation that he regarded as being the most important. He studied piano with Sophie Weisse until he was nineteen and also took lessons in counterpoint from Dr. Walter Parratt when still a boy. He worked with Hubert Parry before being elected to the Lewis Nettleship scholarship at Oxford. He graduated with classical honours in 1898.
Tovey was active in the recital room, giving concerts of his own music, playing chamber music in Berlin and Vienna, and championing other composer’s works through the Classical Concert Society and later the Reid Orchestral Concerts (1917). In 1914 he was appointed to the post of Reid Professor of Music in Edinburgh University and some ten years later he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Music. It is as a scholar that Tovey is best remembered – certainly his analytical notes are still in service and provide learned and often witty comments on the standard repertoire. In his lifetime he was well known as a lecturer and as a broadcaster. Donald Tovey died in Edinburgh on 10 July 1940.
In recent years a number of his musical compositions have been released by enterprising record companies beginning with the Cello Sonata on the Marco Polo label in 1995. Hyperion issued a fine recording of his Piano Concerto on their ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series and finally Toccata Classics have issued three CDs devoted entirely to his music – including the Symphony, the Cello Concerto and chamber works. Dutton have recently presented a large part of the opera The Bride of Dionysus to listeners. Guild Records must be congratulated for joining this increasing group of recording companies who recognise the sheer attractiveness and intrinsic value of Donald Tovey’s music.

Two major works are presented on this disc – the Aria and Variations in B flat major for String Quartet, Op.11 and the String Quartet in G major, Op.23. Both works date from the first decade of the Twentieth Century. I am grateful to the liner notes for information on these two works.
The Aria and Variations was not performed ‘officially’ until 1935 when it was played by the Busch Quartet in Oxford and then repeated in London. Fortunately, there is a review preserved in The Times which stated that ‘ the end of this fascinating work we were left wondering at the neglect of our English masters and grateful to these German artists for recalling one of them to the attention of an English audience.’
Peter R. Shore notes that in assessing a ‘theme’, ‘phrasing is of the essence.’ He explains the musical structure of the Aria and suggests that it is this phrasing ‘which holds the eleven variations together with every possible variety and contrast of which four stringed instruments are capable.’
There is no doubt that this is a well-balanced theme and has the added value of being memorable and therefore recognizable as it is put through its paces. It is reiterated in the finale in its original mood. The work appears to have an overall structure of an arch, with the theme and first four variations building up to a climax. It has been noted that Parry may well be an influence in this work, and this becomes apparent in the music following the central ‘crisis.’ It would be easy to dismiss a work such as this as ‘all Brahms and water’ however the attentive listener will hear echoes of Beethoven and Bach as well as the English master mentioned. Tovey has not written a pastiche or parody: the composer has absorbed all these influences and has created a stunningly beautiful work in its own right. I will not be exaggerating if I suggest that this is one of the masterpieces of English chamber music. Finally, I agree with the reviewer in The Times who suggested that this work must have sounded ‘surprisingly fresh’: it still has that impact in spite of all the changes and chances that music has gone through during the last 75 years.

Peter R. Shore does not mention in his programme notes whether the String Quartet in G major op.23 was ever performed. A quick check in the ‘usual’ places did not reveal any history of a performance. The Quartet was composed in 1909 and was subsequently published in 1914 by Schott.
The only reference I can find to this work is in that good old book The Well-Tempered String Quartet. After suggesting that Sir Donald Tovey’s music is ‘rich in the qualities of solid, well-wrought workmanship’ it insists that amateurs of ‘the more serious order will find much to admire in his chamber music.’ It mentions that there are three quartets- his Opus 11 in B flat (the Aria and Variations), the second in G major, Op.23 and the third in D major, Op. 24. In the opinion of the authors the final quartet is the most worthy, in spite of it being somewhat shorter than the preceding two. Their view on the G major Quartet is that it is ‘a rather slight work.’
This is a point with which I would have to take issue: certainly on the sheer scale of the work which runs to nearly 35 minutes it is no slouch. Yet I can see where the authors are coming from. This is a largely sunny and untroubled work that does not offer players and listeners the challenges of some of the more formidable works in the repertoire.
The G major quartet is written in four movements with the first being the longest. Shore notes that it is written in extended sonata form, but does not then declare where the extensions occur! However the opening subject is an attractive dotted rhythm which appears to haunt the entire movement. It is signed as ‘andante pomposos e galante’, which is a playing instruction that I have not come across before. The entire movement is satisfying and, in spite of not having perused the score, appears to me to be well constructed and proportionate.
The second movement is a ‘pastorale’: however do not expect anything remotely like the ‘cow and gate’ school of English music that was popular at the time. I am not sure where the pastoral imagery derives from – is it Scotland or England? However, something tells me that it is more likely to be a classically imagined backdrop. The programme notes point out that the composers inspiration partially derives from the baroque period where a ‘pastorale’ consisted of a melody in thirds played over a drone bass.
The slow movement, ‘poco adagio, sempre sostenuto’ is the core of the work, yet even here there is no great angst or intensity. Whatever the emotional content of this music is, it is viewed by the composer with equanimity. However the middle section is more strident and alludes to the dotted rhythms of the first movement. The reverie-like music is recalled before this lovely movement closes.
The finale is an ‘allegro commodo’, which once again defines the relatively easy going nature of this work. It is in this movement that one senses Tovey had been most influenced by contemporary developments in musical language. There is an ambiguity about some of the harmony and the soundscape does push towards the impressionistic on occasion. The themes are developed with skill and soon the movement and the string quartet comes to a triumphant close.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that captures the listener’s attention without causing too much soul searching. It is an ideal piece for anyone who wants a break from addressing the more demanding works of Bartok, Maxwell Davies or Shostakovich. Yet ‘demanding’ does not always equal ‘enjoyable’, or more pertinently, moving. In all these categories Sir Donald Tovey succeeds where the others may sometimes struggle.

The Tippett Quartet addresses these two masterworks with sympathy, understanding and relish. It is so good to see such attention to detail and musical engagement with music that is at the fringes of the repertoire. Their efforts here must surely bring Tovey’s chamber works to a wider audience. One hopes that they will also perform these two Quartets in the recital room.
The quality of the sound is great and the packaging of the CD is impressive: I liked the cover picture ‘Moonlight’ by Matthew William Webb (1851-1925).
I was a little ambivalent towards the liner notes. In spite of an excellent introductory essay by Mr. Shore, the analytical notes of the two works appear to have been done in a hurry, and in spite of the musical examples did not really give much information on the genesis, reception and progress of the music.
Lastly it would be great if Guild could see their way to releasing the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed).

Track Listing:
Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940)
Aria and Variations in B flat major for string quartet, Op.11 (1900) String Quartet in G major, Op.23 (1909)
Tippett Quartet: John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violin); Julia O’Riordan (viola); Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Guild GMCD 7346

No comments: