Wednesday, 10 August 2011

English Music for Viola on Naxos

Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979) Sonata for viola and piano (1919) William WALTON (1902-1983) Two Pieces for Viola and Piano (transcribed by Matthew JONES) Canzonetta & Scherzetto (1948-1950) Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Four Pieces (transcribed by Veroncia Leigh JACOBS) (1901-10) Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Legend for Viola and piano (1929) Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Intermezzo (transcribed by Watson FORBES (1909-1997)) (1914) Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Romance for Viola and piano (published posth.1962) Theodore HOLLAND (1878-1947) Suite in D for viola and piano (1938)
Matthew Jones (viola) Michael Hampton (piano)
NAXOS 5.572579

It is almost unbelievable, but true, that at the present time there are nine versions of Rebecca Clarke’s fine Viola Sonata in the CD catalogues. Three things spring to mind about this fact. Firstly, this Sonata is a work that fully deserves as much exposure as possible. It is quite definitely a major masterpiece. Secondly, it is an excellent expression of the fact that both British music in general and women’s music in particular, have seen a huge increase in availability over the past two or three decades. Having said that there is much to be done on both accounts. And finally, there is the down side – there are comparatively few Sonatas for viola in the repertoire: any worthy ones are likely to be played much more often by performers than their violin or cello equivalents. This paucity of material also reflects the need of violists to arrange, or have arranged other music for their instrument.

This present CD can be seen as a compilation in two parts. Firstly there are the two sizable works -the Clarke Sonata and the newly discovered Suite by Theodore Holland. Secondly there is a selection of small-scale, but important works by five major names in British music: three of these are arrangements.

I do not want to give a detailed analysis of Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and piano. However four comments are worth noting. Firstly this piece is an undoubted work of genius; it does not need repeated hearing to realise that this is one of the great works of the genre.
Secondly, the Sonata was composed in 1919 for the Coolidge Competition. She wrote it under the pseudonym ‘Anthony Trent’. Interestingly, the winner of the first prize was Bloch’s Suite for viola. Thirdly, Rebecca Clarke was not a prolific composer: the only other work of similar size and scope to this Sonata was her 1921 Piano Trio.
And fourthly, the sound world of the Sonata is complex. It would be easy to write this work off as a concatenation of a variety of post-romantic styles. For example the listener will easily detect the influences of Claude Debussy, English folksong, Ravel and the impressionism associated with the Ravel-inspired music of Vaughan Williams. However, I believe the main influence has to be Brahms. Yet the overall impression of this twenty-minute long, three movement sonata cannot be described as a hanging together of other composers’ styles. The total effect is quite definitely Rebecca Clarke’s own.

I was immediately impressed by the two short pieces by William Walton. They are new to me – at least in this particular arrangement by Matthew Jones. The Canzonetta was based on a thirteenth-century Troubadour’s song which the composer had researched for his film score to Henry V. It is not an exact transcription of the song; however the piano does echo the sound of a strumming stringed instrument. The melody is profound and moving. The following Scherzando is also inspired by the troubadour tradition, but is a little spicier than music of that earlier era would have allowed.

Arnold Bax’s Legend for viola and piano is a dark-hued and introspective work that explores the composer’s fascination with the Celtic twilight. It was composed in 1929 for Lionel Tertis whom Bax had met at the Royal Academy of Music. If there is any criticism of the piece it is that for a work lasting some ten minutes, there are many mood changes. This ranges from ‘the downright sinister to the dreamlike’ in the space of a handful of bars. Yet it is a well written piece that exploits the ‘voice’ and technique of the viola. There is no suggestion as to what the ‘legend’ may actually be.

The four Frank Bridge pieces, Berceuse, Sérénade and Elégie, are well known in their original guise for either violin or cello and piano: the final Cradle Song was originally a mezzo-soprano song to words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. All four numbers work well for the viola and are welcome additions to the repertoire. They were transcribed by Veronica Leigh Jacobs, who was a friend and confidante of Rebecca Clarke.

I had not heard the short Intermezzo by Arthur Bliss before. This miniature was transcribed by Watson Forbes from the middle movement of the composer’s Piano Quartet dating from 1915. Bliss played the viola and also contributed an important Sonata for that instrument. He once described is a ‘the most romantic of the instruments: a veritable Byron in the orchestra’. He added that the viola’s ‘rather restless and tragic personality makes it an ideal vehicle for romantic and oratorical expression.’ The transcription may have been made before the original work was first performed: however it was not published until 1950. It is a light piece that plumbs no great depths, but is attractive, ‘nimble footed’ and melodic. Watson Douglas Buchanan Forbes (1909-1997) although born in Gloucestershire was a Scottish violist and classical music arranger. From 1964 to 1974 he was Head of Music for BBC Scotland.

I have loved the Romance for viola and piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams since first hearing this piece some twenty years ago. The work was discovered amongst the composer’s papers after his death. It was probably composed around the outbreak of the Great War and may have been written for Lionel Tertis. His friendship with Tertis resulted in Flos Campi and the Suite for Viola. Paul Spicer has well described this work as being ‘small in scale but large in dramatic effect.’ It is a fine balance between the pastoral opening and the involved central climax of the work.

For me, the great discovery of this CD is the Suite for Viola and piano by Theodore Holland. I will need to hear this work a number of times and, perhaps, a perusal of the score may help to gain a better understanding of this piece. However on first hearing, this is a fine work that is both attractive and beautiful in its execution. The Suite is in three well-balanced movements that are approachable and satisfying. The mood of the entire suite is typically optimistic however there are some moments of reflection, especially in the ‘romance.’ This is not a derivative work: it is not easy to tie down the influences. Certainly there is little in the way of ‘modernism’ but neither are there any ‘farmers in smocks’.
The opening movement has some of the most involved music that maybe owes something to Bliss’s Viola Sonata. However the tension of the opening bars soon gives way to a more lyrical conversation between soloists.
The Romance is truly lovely with ‘haunting’ but never despairing music. This is passionate, soul searching music that moves the listener. It is almost impossible to hear this movement without being baffled as to why this work has been ignored for so long.
The final ‘allegro vivace’ has a trippy, ‘jazzy’ feel to it, without it being jazz. It is a movement of two parts – the lively outgoing outer sections contrasting with a mysterious, introverted middle section. This Suite in D for viola and piano is certainly one of my major discoveries of 2011 (so far). I hope that Holland’s music can be explored in greater detail in coming years.

This is an excellent CD. The programme is well-balanced, with a good selection of original works and arrangements. The two major pieces are stunningly and convincingly played by Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton: the shorter works are also given enthusiastic and sympathetic performances.
This is essential listening for all chamber music enthusiasts, be they committed to the cause of British music or not. The repertoire of original music for viola and piano is not huge; however this CD disc has presented a few new discoveries to the interested listener. It deserves every success.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rebecca Clarke also wrote a large-scale Rhapsody for cello and piano (commissioned by Coolidge) that was recorded recently. It is similar in scope and style to both the Sonata and Trio, but seems a bit unwieldy. This is perhaps why it was not published until the Clarke society did so recently. Also - thank you for this wonderful blog!

John France said...

Thanks for that!!

J