This wonderful exploration of British music for violin and piano opens with Doreen Carwithen’s masterly Sonata. Carwithen has pointed out that this work is not in conventional sonata form: the order of the movements and the formal structure are not strictly applied. Yet, the overall impression is of a deeply thought out work that combines a satisfying progression of ideas with outstandingly virtuosic playing demanded from both soloists. This is a passionate work that just seems to pour out emotion, albeit always controlled.
John Turner (liner notes) suggests that the score was completed around 1951 (c.1960 in track-listing), despite the fact the composer herself could not recall the circumstances and date. Apparently, the work was rejected by the BBC Music Panel in 1952 with three ‘No’s’: from Clarence Raybould, Gordon Jacob and Benjamin Frankel. Clearly, they were having an ‘off day.’ This rejection and that of her splendid tone-poem (overture) Bishop Rock ‘effectively silenced the work’ until it was recorded by Lydia Mordkovitch (violin) and Julian Milford (piano) in 1998 (Chandos, CHAN 9596).
Charles Wilfred (C.W.) Orr is usually associated with his definitive settings of the poetry of A.E. Housman. There are other songs, a few choral numbers, and one or two pieces of chamber music. His only excursion into orchestral music was the idyllic Cotswold Hill-Tune written in 1937. I have not previously heard the two pieces presented on this CD: Serenade and Minuet. Both were written ‘after 1930.’ John Turner suggests that they may never have been publicly performed during the composer’s lifetime. The ‘official’ premiere was given by the present artists at the 4th William Alwyn Festival in 2014. It is not clear if they were intended as standalone pieces or were part of a projected suite. There is nothing ‘modernistic’ about the harmonic and melodic language, yet this is not ‘cow-pat’ music. These ‘subtle’ pieces epitomise late-English romantic music at its best. Whatever the situation, these two delicious pieces are a valuable discovery.
Changing mood somewhat, Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Elegy’ and ‘Toccata’ were composed in 1950. They were originally published as discreet pieces, but have come to be complimentary: they are now usually performed together. Both are dedicated to the violinist Frederick Grinke (1911-87). The Elegy is exactly what it ‘says on the tin’: sad, reflective and lyrical. It was subsequently arranged for string orchestra. The Toccata is a breathless romp from end to end.
Once again, I have not heard Cyril Scott’s two Sonnets before reviewing this disc. They were published in the early days of the First World War. Surprisingly modern in mood, these two quite dissimilar pieces are in the composer’s ‘non-tonal’ style. It is possible that Scott showed these two Sonnets to Claude Debussy in 1913. They are dreamy, imaginative and inspired by a somewhat abstract text which is quoted in the liner notes.
I enjoyed the short Légende in E flat by Fred. Delius. It was composed whilst he was living in Paris, probably sometime around 1892/5. It exists in two versions: for soloist and orchestra, and the present one. There is no clue as to what the ‘legend’ underlying the work may be, so I guess the listener is free to apply any ‘programme’ or none. Some listeners will feel that the style of this music is a long way from ‘Cuckoos’, ‘Gardens’ and ‘Summer Nights on Rivers’: there are some magical moments, but I think Rob Barnett is correct when he ascribes the adjectives ‘Palm Court’ to this piece. That does not belittle the music in any way.
Bolton-born Thomas Baron Pitfield’s huge catalogue of music is currently represented by three works in the Arkiv catalogue. Over the years a few more have appeared on record here and there: some are now deleted. The two most significant discs are of the Piano Concertos No.1 and 2 on Naxos (8.557291) and the Violin Concerto on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7221). In 1993 a retrospective of Pitfield’s music was issued by the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) (HERITAGE HTGCD210).
The present CD is a welcome addition to the listings. John Turner points out the Violin Sonata No.1 became one of the most regularly performed of Pitfield’s works. It was composed in 1939 and dedicated to R.J. Forbes (1878-1958), then Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music (now RNCM). The sonata, which is in four contrasting movements is immediately approachable. Formally, the thing that makes this work tick is the finale which is a set of cyclic variations that recapitulates in reverse order the themes of the entire sonata. I accept that this is not obvious to the casual listener (I needed the notes for this information too), but structurally it is clearly novel.
The artistic inputs to this work are manifold. These include English folk-song, classical balance and poise, French sophistication and Russian imagination. What Pitfield has succeeded in doing is creating a synthesis here which has become his unique voice. I guess that I would need to hear much more of this music, before drawing too many stylistic conclusions, but based on this interesting and often quite beautiful sonata, I feel that a major reappraisal of his music is long overdue.
Many listeners will associate Percy M. Young with successful and enduring books about music. These include studies of Edward Elgar and Arthur Sullivan. Yet, as well as being a musicologist he was an editor, organist, conductor, teacher and composer. I have not knowingly heard any compositions by Young until this present Passacaglia: I understand that he wrote ‘Virgin's Slumber Song’ (1932), From a Child's Garden (Robert Louis Stevenson; 1941), Fugal Concerto in G minor for 2 pianos and strings (1951), and Elegy for String Orchestra (1960). (Wikipedia)
The Passacaglia for violin and piano was Young’s first published work, dating from 1931. It is dedicated to the violinist Margaret Mathieson. The music develops from a ‘Purcellian ground bass’ first heard on the piano. There is a touch of Gerald Finzi about the gradual working out of this short piece. It is a beautifully proportioned work that is both reflective and positive at the same time.
The two short pieces by John Ireland were written with amateur performers in mind: neither are condescending in their content or technique. The heart-achingly beautiful ‘Berceuse’ was originally a ‘Grade 3’ piece, but even the relative simplicity of the solo violin part does not detract from this little masterpiece. The ‘Bagatelle’ is a bouncy number that has just a hint of sadness around the edges. The latter was dedicated to the violinist Marjorie Hayward (1885-1953).
The liner notes by John Turner are essential reading and give all the data required for an informed appreciation of these varied works. They have been an immense help in the preparation of this review. Turner has long been an advocate for the music of Thomas Pitfield and has done much to promote it over the years.
The performance of these works is always convincing and exhibits understanding of the artistic parameters of each work as well as displaying palpable enthusiasm. Whether dealing with the complex outpouring of Carwithen or the heartfelt melody of John Ireland’s ‘Berceuse’, Fenella Humphreys (violin) Nathan Williamson (piano) give definitive performances of all this music. Information on the soloists would have been helpful, however their respective web-pages are cited.
Once again, Lyrita have excelled themselves with this highly imaginative conspectus of British violin music. Most of the works are ‘premiere recordings’: those that are not are hardly ubiquitous. Long may this adventurous spirit prevail in the managerial echelons of this national treasure of a record company.
Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2003) Violin Sonata (c.1951)
C.W. ORR (1893-1976) Sarabande (after 1930) [5:55], Minuet (after 1930)
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89) Elegy and Toccata op.33 No.2 & 3 (1951)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Two Sonnets (1914/15)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Légende in E flat (c.1892-5)
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-99) Sonata No.1 in A (1939)
Percy M. YOUNG (1912-2004) Passacaglia (1931)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Berceuse (1902) [3:59], Bagatelle (1911)
Fenella Humphreys (violin), Nathan Williamson (piano)
LYRITA SRCD 359
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.