Friday, 18 February 2011

Donald Tovey: Chamber Music on Guild Volume 2

The music of Donald Tovey never ceases to amaze me. Firstly, if you had asked me a few years ago about Mr. Tovey, I would have answered that he was a fine musicologist who had occupied the Reid Professorship at Edinburgh University. I would have pointed out that he is best remembered for his massive series of Essays in Musical Analysis. I wrote a thumbnail sketch of his life and work in a recent review, however it is important to reiterate one fact: Tovey believed that making music was the most important thing in his life –to this end he worked as a conductor, a pianist, an editor, a writer, a broadcaster, a scholar, a teacher and last but certainly no means least, a composer. The music presented on this present CD is superb. I can hardly begin to imagine how it has lain undiscovered and un-played for so many years.

Over the last five or so years there have been a number of CDs released of his music. In fact there has been a veritable explosion of interest with the way being led by Toccata Records. It is possible to listen to his Symphony, his Piano and Cello Concertos, extracts from his major opera The Bride of Dionysus (Dutton Epoch) and the attractive Air for Strings. However it is in the field of chamber music that most activity appears to have been concentrated. In 1995 Marco Polo released the Sonata for cello and piano in F major alongside the Variations for the same combination. Three years ago Toccata produced a fine CD of the Piano Trios in B minor and C minor. Last year Guild released the Aria and Variations for String Quartet in B flat major Op.11 and the Quartet for Strings in G major, Op.23: this was well received by the musical press.

The Piano Trio in D major, Op.27 was composed in 1910 and was given its first performance in the following year. It is a work with which I felt I could immediately do business. The whole mood of this first movement can be described as ‘open-air’ and is well reflected in the ‘allegro con brio’ direction on the first page of the score. However, it is not all fun and laughter: there are moments of rest and contemplation provided by the second subject. There are times here when this music approaches the musical work of Edward Elgar, although it never really declares itself as British piece of music.
The second movement is signed ‘larghetto maestoso’ and is really in the form of a rhapsody – at least the various instrumentalists appear to rhapsodise as the music unfolds. However, there is a new theme introduced towards the end of the movement which is really a touch of genius. This beautiful movement slowly dies away into nothing.
The final movement has all the excitement and rhythmic vitality of a trip on the railway. The programme notes point out that Tovey travelled extensively by rail over his lifetime, and this would have involved steam locomotives. Certainly this is one of the best (and unsung) ‘railway pieces’ in the repertoire. Two things to bear in mind. This is a reasonably relaxed journey – possibly to a market town or the seaside rather than to Glasgow or Manchester. And secondly, I have no doubt that Tovey did not intend to make this into a miniature ‘tone poem’ for rail enthusiasts, but it is just the sort of piece that could (just about) be excerpted on Classic FM and would allow a whole range of new listeners to be introduced to this fine composer. This last movement along with the rest of the piece is a great and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Donald Tovey’s chamber music.

The greatest revelation on this CD is surely the fine Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29. This work was composed the year before the Great War, in 1913 and was dedicated to Tovey’s friend the violinist Adolf Busch. I have not seen the score of this work, but even on first hearing it is clear that this is a piece that is full of technical difficulties for the soloist. However, this observation needs further consideration. In spite of a plethora of complex technical effects this work remains a viable piece of music. This is not a study designed to help the player play better. It is not a Sonata that has been evacuated of a satisfying musical experience in favour of a concatenation of exercises that sound impressive but is devoid of inspiration and fail to move the listener. It is a challenging and often moving masterpiece.
The work is cast in four movements with the scherzo placed second. The opening movement is in sonata form with an introduction that immediately defines the relevance of the work’s title. The slow movement is particularly attractive and is ‘an extremely beautiful and evocative reminder of a more relaxed and thoughtful era.’ The finale is a tour de force that requires huge skill from the soloist with considerable contrapuntal development requiring two completely different styles of ‘melody’ playing at the same time. I cannot play the violin, but I was left speechless by the technical complexity of this movement. As to what the music sounds like it is actually quite hard to pin down. There are moments of Bach, and perhaps not surprisingly, echoes of Paganini: the programme notes suggest the Ysaye’s solo sonatas, but I am not familiar with these. Certainly there is nothing here that nods to ‘modern’ developments on the Continent or to the English Musical Renaissance. Like much of Sir Donald Tovey’s music it is most certainly ‘retro’ but this does not mean that it is pastiche of anyone else.

The Piano Quartet in E minor, Op.12 is an important and impressive work by any standard. It was composed in 1900 and was dedicated to Harold Joachim who had been one of Tovey’s tutors at Balliol College. This is big music that is fairly and squarely in the late-romantic tradition. Although ostensibly cast in two large scale movements the sheer variety of tempi and musical material make it seem like more! The opening movement is in sonata form and explores a number of virile themes, yet there are plenty of introspective moments in this music that allow the players and listeners to relax.
The ‘finale’ opens with a lovely solo cello melody played ‘largo.’ This is then expanded by the viola before the ‘formal’ structure changes from a song to a chaconne. This is beautiful stately music that is both valedictory and reflective. Then the musical mood changes to ‘energico’: the spell is broken for a space. Yet the music never becomes flamboyant: there is a sense of melancholy which pervades the entire proceedings. Eventually the dreamlike mood returns for the conclusion of this movement. As the liner notes point out ‘the piano floats away in a mist...into the arms or Morpheus’. This is truly gorgeous music.
I guess that the range of classical music from Bach to Brahms along with Stanford and Parry are the key influences in this work as in much of Tovey’s music. Certainly he seems to look more towards Germany than to his native heath. Yet it is not so much influences as the final results that matter. Tovey has managed to compose a corpus of music that is beholden to the past, but is new, fresh and imaginative: h has made this style of music his own. Finally and most of all it impresses moves the listener
Peter R. Shore provides a detailed introduction to the composer and, along with the violinist Robert Atchison, a set of reasonable programme notes for each work, although a little bit more detail on the history and reception of each work would have been welcome. And I wonder what ‘pedel’ tone is in the E minor Quartet!
I was impressed by the playing of all the musicians on this CD, but special mention has to go to the aforementioned Mr. Atchison for his stunning performance of the massive Sonata Eroica. This is surely a major triumph in the history of recording of British music. I am not usually a fan of ‘solo’ violin, but this work ‘blew me away.’ Yet the entire CD is a testament to the interest being shown in so called ‘forgotten’ composers.
Fortunately there is still a deal of Sir Donald Tovey’s music still to be released. It is with considerable expectation that I await the next volume of chamber works from Guild. Perhaps, as I suggested in a previous reviews, they will record the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed)?

Track Listing:
Donald Tovey (1875-1940)
Piano Trio, Op.27 (1910), Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29 (1913),
Piano Quartet, Op.12 (1900)
London Piano Trio, Robert Atchison (violin) Ormesby Ensemble
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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