There are currently some 24 recordings of the Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor listed in the Arkiv catalogues. When these include such ‘big’ names as Nigel Kennedy, Hugh Bean, Tasmin Little and Lydia Mordkovitch, it has to be a special new release that would prompt me to purchase yet another version of this great, late chamber work. What the Steinberg Duo have done is to match an excellent new performance of this Sonata with two impressive examples of the genre by the contemporary composer Philip Sawyers. It is a good permutation.
I do not intend to give a biography of Philip Sawyers: there is a perfectly good thumbnail sketch on his webpage. Three points are worth noting. Firstly, Sawyers has been composing since he was 13. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he majored violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal, and composition from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.
Secondly, it is only in the past twenty years or so that he has been fully recognised as an important composer, although I admit to not having consciously heard any music by him until this present release.
And finally, after a career with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Sawyers now spends his ‘spare time’ from composing as a ‘freelance’ violinist, teacher and adjudicator having spent 12 years as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music from 2001-2013’.
His musical style has been summed up by Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source who reviewed the premiere of the Second symphony ‘deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic…’ It is a sentiment I can apply to these present Violin Sonatas with the change from ‘symphonic’ to ‘instrumental’.
The first violin sonata began life as one for viola. It was written quickly for a Guildhall student during 1969. Later it was ‘transcribed’ for another student performer, this time a violinist. What impressed me about this work was the extraordinary balance between what could be described as ‘bartokian’ drive coloured by harmonic piquancy and a more reflective, native sound that sits in a well-defined trajectory of the English Music Renaissance. I am not sure if the musical material of this sonata is derived from a ‘series’, but whatever the constructive scaffolding of this music, it is attractive, inspiring and moving. The work is in three short movements with the beautiful central ‘andante’ forming its emotional depth. Stylistically, it must have seemed a very ‘conservative’ work when it was first performed at the end of the nineteen-sixties, yet the intervening years have given this music an almost timeless feel.
Musicologists usually regard with suspicion any composer who does not ‘develop’. They often try to categorise ‘periods’ in an artist’s musical biography, suggesting that ‘later is better’: that somehow the composer has been straining towards some particular goal all their creative live. For example, it is a long way, musically, from Igor Stravinsky’s Russian works, through his neo-classical period to the serial compositions. There may be connections, stylistic markers and self-references, but there is also clear development –for better or worse. On this basis Philip Sawyers’ two violin sonatas he does not appear to have ‘developed’ in a stylistic sense. What has happened is that he has matured – both at a structural and technical level. The second violin sonata is claimed as a twelve-tone work; however the composer wears this process lightly. He does not allow the ‘series’ to control his ‘inspiration’ –it is a tool, not a straightjacket. This complex and virtuosic sonata is once again in three movements. The first, an allegro, is typically a ‘toccata’ balanced by some retrospective moments. Sawyers has noted that he made a ‘nod’ to the ‘baroque’ in this movement, but this is no ‘Back to Bach’ exercise. The introverted ‘andante’ includes a hidden ‘brief 4-note quotation from Schoenberg’s 2nd Chamber Symphony’. Apparently judicious ‘homage’ to other composers is one of his ‘fingerprints.’ The final movement fairly romps along. This is more a ‘scherzo’ than a ‘sonata’ or ‘rondo’. There are a number of references to material from the previous movements. The work ends with drama and energy. The entire Sonata is a tour de force for both performers.
Alongside the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 represents a late-flowering of Elgar’s compositional powers. They are commonly known as the ‘Brinkwells’ after the cottage in Sussex where the composer spent time recuperating during the last year of the Great War. The Sonata was dedicated to M.J. (Marie Joshua) who was a family friend. Elgar wrote to her, "I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist". Shortly after receiving this letter Marie died.
There were many who expected the new Sonata to be reflect the opulence of his symphonies however the result was much more concise and concentrated than many of his better known masterpieces. Elgar himself wrote that ‘the first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for violin…they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in an expressive way…the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’ There is much passion and ‘violent outpouring of emotion’ in these pages with the quieter and more tranquil themes reflecting grief, sadness and ultimately resignation. The final movement is much more positive in its effect and the work concludes with great hope for the future. One particularly beautiful moment is the self-quotation of the central theme of the slow movement in the last pages of the work – this was in memory of Marie Joshua. Its first public performance was by W.H. Reed and Landon Ronald on 21 March 1919.
The Steinberg Duo consist of the husband-and-wife partnership of Louisa Stonehill, violin and Nicholas Burns, piano. They are based in Greenwich in South-East London and have created a ‘specialised chamber music studio’ where they hold monthly recitals. Local residents are encouraged to ‘experience chamber music in its natural habitat, away from the concert hall’. For the past two years the Duo has been in ‘residence’ for the month of January in the Banff Centre in Canada, the venue for the present recording.
As part of their commitment to contemporary music, they have a strong relationship with Philip Sawyer. They plan to record some examples of his concerted music, including the Concertante for Piano, violin and strings.
There is little to grumble about any aspect of this CD. I guess that Nimbus could have found one or two smaller pieces by Elgar or Sawyers to boost the total beyond 62 minutes. The liner notes are excellent and give a helpful introduction to Sawyers’ violin sonatas. A little more general information about this composer would have been helpful. I concede that Sawyers has an attractive Webpage although this is a little shy on detail. For example, there is no listing of all his works to date. The link to his music publisher refers only the 1st Violin Sonata. The liner notes by Nicolas Burns for the Elgar sonata are ideal. Finally the CD cover does not inspire me: the pianist sitting on the floor looks as if his shoes could do with a brush!
I imagine that few listeners will chose this CD solely for the Steinberg Duo’s rendition of the Elgar Sonata, in spite of the fact that it is given an exemplary performance. However, the two Philip Sawyer Sonatas are such a startling discovery that it makes a surprisingly good package. The common thread between these three works is the sense of retrospection balanced by an often intense outpouring of emotion in Elgar’s case and energy in Sawyers’.
It is good to come across music from a composer who has not gone down the avenue of producing ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ inspired music that lacks emotion, structure and challenge. After hearing so much Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow on the airwaves it is refreshing to hear some respectable, honest, down to earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled structure and moments of sheer inspiration. I look forward to hearing more of Philip Sawyers music.
Taken as a whole, this CD is an excellent addition to the violin sonata repertoire.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.
Philip SAWYERS (b. 1951) Violin Sonata No.1 (1969) [13:46] Violin Sonata No.2 (2011) [21:05]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) [26:46]
Steinberg Duo Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano)
Rec. The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada January 2013
Nimbus Alliance NI6240 [61:37]