Thursday, 12 March 2015

Seven Sisters: Chamber Music by British Women

This is a CD full of delights. Naturally, when seven works by seven composers from three major artistic eras are presented on a disc, the listener will have their favourites.  And I am no different. I will put my cards on the table as the review progresses.
‘Le Temps Viendra’ by Cecilia McDowell is a serious piece. It was inspired by words written by Anne Boleyn into her Book of Hours. The music ‘contemplates [her] premonition of her…death in a suitably haunted manner.’ Whether this is successful, is up to the imagination of the listener. For me it is ‘works’ better as an abstract piece of music. Some interesting and imaginative instrumental sonorities here maintain considerable interest.
Rosalind Ellicott’s ‘Aria’ is absolutely beautiful and totally ‘beguiling’. She out-Elgar’s, Elgar with this sad, but ultimately positive piece for violin and piano. It may be technically classified as ‘salon music’ but it pushes the boundaries towards something much more profound. If it were played on Classic FM it would surely become one of the nation’s favourites. It is taken from an album of ‘Six Pieces’ which appeared in 1892.  It would be interesting to hear what the other five numbers sounded like.

I enjoyed Jocelyn Pook’s musical survey from the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Originally composed for the documentary film Remnants of Everest: The 1996 Tragedy, this extract expresses the ‘sense of wonder at the spectacular mountain scene and seeing dawn unfurling on the peaks’.  Alas, eight climbers died as a result of a horrendous storm at that time: eleven survived. Pook’s music is straightforward: simple even, in a most positive way. It works well as a standalone piece in spite of having been extracted from a wider score. The chamber ensemble is perfectly suited to this music, with some lovely woodwind passages. There is a thoughtful element in this score that hints, but does not major on, the ensuing catastrophe.
I hate to admit it, but Sally Beamish’s ‘Songs and Blessing’ for oboe, bassoon, viola and piano does not move me in the way I feel it should. It is supposedly influenced by the ancient songs and rituals of the Outer Hebrides, celebrating ‘the islander’s sense of God’s immediacy in daily living.’ There are a number of sections in this work that include ‘The Sowing’, ‘Dance’, ‘Psalm’, ‘Weaving Song’, ‘Blessing’ and ‘Reaping’. The liner notes point out that there are a few suggestive Scottish ‘snaps’ and an imitation of the bagpipe’s drone. It is an evocative piece that uses an imaginative approach to the small chamber ensemble: in fact the listener will sometimes feel that they are listening to a chamber orchestra rather than a quartet.

Sophia Dussek’s (1775-c.1830) wonderfully poised and elegant Violin Sonata is my main discovery on this CD. Most aspiring pianists will have battled their way through one or more of her husband Jan Ladislav’s (1760-1812) piano sonatas. But I guess few will have come across Sophia’s music. Not only was she a composer, but also a singer, pianist and harpist.  The present sonata was published in 1793 (the same year as Haydn’s Symphony No. 99). It was written expressly for the forte-piano. The work is dedicated to a certain Miss Cornelia Collins who was possibly a pupil or a patron.  The composition is thoroughly enjoyable from the first page to the last. It is urbane music that does not challenge the listener but keeps them engaged and delighted. The liner notes point out the ‘singing octaves’ in the first allegro’s codetta that anticipate the then six-year-old Franz Schubert so it is forward looking as well as being a fine summation of the then-contemporary musical style.  This is an important Sonata that demands to be well-established in the repertoire. A wee bit more biographical information about Sophia Dussek would have been helpful: What was her position and status in London: for example? In fact, she was born in Scotland and latterly ran a music school in Paddington with her second husband. Lots of exploration to do here…

I felt that I should have liked Ethel Smyth’s Cello Sonata, yet after two hearings it has not caught my imagination. It is very much in the vernacular of the ‘German romantic language of the day.’ It is well-written, widely ranging in emotion and varied in style. I accept that it is probably the major work on this CD, but just does not do it for me.

Madeleine Dring’s Trio for flute, oboe and piano is the most enjoyable thing (for me) on this CD. It was composed in 1968 for her husband, the oboist Roger Lord.  I was reminded of Poulenc’s Gallic wit and charm in the progress of this music, yet there is a touch of typically English magic about this work that the liner notes suggest is the musical equivalent of Joyce Grenfell. Diana Ambache writes that the composer was ‘both cheeky and saucy.’ A hint of Mozart notwithstanding, this is an original work that displays Dring’s character to a tee.  It is interesting to note that The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was at No.1 in the UK album charts the year that this Trio was written.

I was delighted by the quality of playing on this CD. The liner notes are excellent, with brief but illuminating biographies of the composers and a few succinct words about the works in question. There are also detailed summaries of each of the performers. 

Diane Ambache in her introduction has summed up this CD better than any critic could. She says that ‘these works demonstrate a wide range of expression, encompassing vigour, charm, ardour, fire and delightful playfulness… [the composers are] gutsy, spirited and sometime cheeky.’ 

Track Listing:
Cecilia MCDOWELL (b.1951) Le Temps Viendra for oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet and piano (1998)
Rosalind ELLICOTT (1857-1924) Aria for violin and piano (1891)
Jocelyn POOK (b.1960) Wonderland arr. for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and piano (2007, 2014)
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956) Songs and Blessings for oboe, bassoon, viola and piano (1991)
Sophia DUSSEK (1775-c. 1830) Sonata in D, op.1 for violin and piano (1793)
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) Sonata in A minor op.5 for cello and piano (1887)
Madeleine DRING (1923-1977) Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1968)
Diana Ambache (piano) Anthony Robb (flute) Jeremy Polmear (oboe, cor anglais) Neyire Ashworth (clarinet, bass clarinet) Julie Andrews (bassoon) David Juritz (violin) Louise Williams (viola) Rebecca Knight (cello)
With thanks to MusicWeb /international where this review was first published.

1 comment:

Paul Brownsey said...

What you say about the Ethel Smyth work could express my reaction to her Mass.

I have listened to a CD of it a good many times. After 30 seconds, I'm thinking, "This is seriously good: how confidently she writes, what mastery of techniques, what ingenuity, what effects!" But thereafter it fails to establish any grip on my musical ear: something seems missing from the heart of it.