Wednesday, 27 February 2013

British Works for Cello and Piano: Volume 1 on Chandos

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major (1879-80, revised 1883) 
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) Sonata for Cello and Piano (1916)
Granville Bantock (1868-1946) ‘Hamabdil’: Hebrew Melody (1919) 
John Foulds (1880-1939) Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.6 (1905, revised 1927) 
Paul Watkins (cello) Huw Watkins (piano)

A great place to start the exploration of this excellent new CD of cello and piano music is with Granville Bantock’s beautiful ‘Hamabdil’. The work originated as an entr’acte to Arnold Bennett’s play Judith (1919) which was based on the well-known story from the Apocryphal Old Testament.  In the same year, the music was worked up into at least three versions including one for Cello Solo, Strings, Kettledrum and Harp (or Piano) and the present arrangement for Cello and piano (or harp).  This short piece is based on a Hebrew melody which is subjected to a series of ‘continuous variations.’ The mood of ‘Hamabdil’ is rhapsodic and carries the burden of sadness that seems to typify much Jewish melody.

Of all the works on this CD the one that I am most at home with is the gorgeous Sonata by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. The first (and only) time I have heard this work ‘live’ was at the end of long, but thoroughly enjoyable ‘Parry Day’ at the Royal College of Music.  Raphael Wallfisch and Hiroaki Takenouchi gave a stunning account of the Cello Sonata. At that time I felt that it was unbelievable that this work in not in the cello repertoire: I have since heard the excellent performance by Andrew Fuller and Michael Dussek on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7102)
Parry’s Cello Sonata is a relatively early work, dating from 1879 when the composer was thirty-one years old. Interestingly, it was composed the year before the first performance of the ‘mould breaking’ choral Prometheus Unbound which has been ascribed as being the moment that British music’s self-confidence was restored.  The present Sonata is written in three movements with the slow ‘andante sostenuto’ being especially moving and expressive.  The opening movement is constructed in formal sonata form. However, the final movement has a mysterious introduction before ‘the sun comes out’ and the music becomes much more positive. The work ends with an impressive coda.  Although it is possible to note stylistic allusions to Brahms and Schumann in much of this Sonata, it is a remarkable work that reveals the elusive note of Parry’s ‘Englishness’ for the first time. 

Most of Frederick Delius’ chamber works were composed late in his career. The present Cello Sonata was written in 1916 and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison and Hamilton Harty at the Wigmore Hall on 31 October 1918. The music is expounded in a long single movement that is separated into three contrasting sections ‘Allegro ma non troppo’, ‘Lento, molto tranquillo’ and ‘Tempo primo’.  There is little relaxation in this sonata with an almost continuous development of the music as a long unbroken song. The cello explores the entire compass of the instrument: the accompanist never has a rest.  Delius chamber works have never gained the popularity of the orchestral music. This may be due to the more austere nature of much of the writing. However, this Cello Sonata does have considerable warmth that makes it approachable to people that may prefer the orchestral ‘Cuckoo’ and ‘Paradise Garden.’ It is a beautiful work that is ultimately satisfying, even if it does not quite fit into the Delian mould.

The Guardian Reviewer has noted the five columns of liner notes given to the exposition of the John Foulds' Cello Sonata. It certainly takes a deal of time to read this closely written text. However I disagree with his assessment of this work as ‘unremarkable’ ‘despite the energy and virtuosity it demands.’ I largely sympathise with the first half of Malcolm MacDonald’s contention that this ‘remarkably powerful and original’ sonata is one of the finest, if not the finest Cello Sonata by an English composer.’
The sonata was composed in 1905 when Foulds was 25 years old. It was considerably revised for publication in 1927.  However in the 85 years since it publication it appears to have suffered considerable neglect. Foulds enthusiasts will have the excellent British Music Society (BMS423CD) recording with Jo Cole (cello) and John Talbot (piano)
It is not necessary to give an outline of the Sonatas structure save to note that it is written in three movements – Moderato quasi allegretto, Lento and Molto brioso. The heart of the work is the middle movement. This is a heart-achingly beautiful elegy. The Fouldain fingerprint of ‘quarter tones’ should not put off the listener: it is not a gimmick, but essential to the musical argument.
It is useful to recall that John Foulds was the only professional cellist amongst the composers on this disc. The present Sonata calls for a significant technical skills from both instrumentalists to present the sweeping development of this hugely passionate and expressive work. 

I was hugely impressed by this CD. The two soloists, Paul Watkins and Huw Watkins respond with great sympathy and understanding to these diverse pieces. The liner notes by Calum MacDonald are considerable and tell the listener virtually all that they could wish to know about these four pieces. I felt that the sound quality was excellent and revealed all the nuances of these works. I am delighted that this is Volume 1 of a projected series. Roll on the next release! 

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