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Heartache – An Anthology of English Viola Music
Eric COATES (1886-1957)

First Meeting
Alec ROWLEY (1892-1958)

Alfred MOFFAT (1866-1950)

Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946)

In Courtly Company
Alla Sarabanda
Adam CARSE (1878-1958)

Calm Reflection
A Breezy Story
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Allegro appassionato
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)

I’ll bid my heart be still
Lionel TERTIS (1876-1975)

Benjamin DALE (1885-1943)

Adam CARSE (1878-1958)

Gently Swaying
Norman FULTON (1909-1980)

Introduction, air and reel
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Canto Popolare from Alassio (In The South)
Dame Avril Piston (viola)
Shamonia Harpa (piano)
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, November 2002
GUILD 7275 [73.30]


Burnished and emblazoned behind this latest release from Guild is the immortal name of Lionel Tertis. If his predecessor in the British viola hierarchy, Alfred Hobday, is the now unsung pioneer of standard setting in orchestral and chamber playing, Tertis was the onlie begetter. The raft of composers who wrote for him encore, sonata and concertante pieces enriched the repertoire of adventurous violists and gave them the fruits of Tertis’ pioneering and indefatigable zeal. With the obvious exception of Canto Popolare in this disc, most here were written for Tertis.

Many are suited to show off Tertis’s gorgeous depth of tone and legato phrasing; the technical command he evinced is also shown in, say, the in alt playing demands of Eric Coates – a fellow viola player and colleague – in First Meeting. With the mute on, Rebecca Clarke’s impressionistic reverie in Morpheus is as potent as ever. Tertis greatly admired Benjamin Dale and lost few opportunities to programme his music, doing so in Germany and America as well as his native country. Violist Dame Avril Piston and Shamonia Harpa catch the alluring sway and glint of the music as much as its stormier impressionism. Their Elgar is soft and reverent, rather reserved and not rising to a peak – attractively withdrawn. They espouse Rowley’s Aubade, an unlikely but humorous paraphrase of O Mistress Mine and bring courtly elegance to Moffat’s Longing and wistfulness to the piece that gives the disc its title, Adam Carse’s Heartache (somewhat over emotionalised a title, I think). They come under a bit of pressure in Bridge’s Allegro appassionato happily coupled with the delightful Pensiero. The recital ends with the becalmed effulgence of a piece by Tertis himself, Sunset. This is a piece the Master recorded for Vocalion in the early 1920s. His rich, sensuous tone and quicksilver emotive responses are part and parcel of his Kreisleresque late Romantic aesthetic. Dame Avril and Miss Harpa sound rather more streamlined and affectionate by comparison.

Which brings us to the most remarkable part of this winning collection of English viola morceaux. Dame Avril was 82 when she recorded these pieces and her partner – pianistic and life companion as the booklet tactfully puts it - was a mere 81. Dame Avril was born in Rhodesia and studied in London with, inter alia, Bernard Shore and John Dyer before studying with Tertis himself. Her wanderings have taken her to India and to Peru and also to the surgeon’s knife; Dame Avril was not always a dame. Her companion Shamonia Harpa studied at the RAM with York Bowen. Indeed she has apparently played all four of her teacher’s Piano Concertos in Bombay – which is where I assume she met Dame Avril. In any event it’s an amazing feat – even York Bowen barely managed to perform his own concertos, let alone in Bombay. They now live in well-earned retirement in Faccombe in Hampshire. Curiously, as I was completing this review I had a telephone call from an old friend whose father was in the Indian civil service during the Second War. When I told him of this disc he reminded me that his father had once heard a remarkable young woman playing the piano at the residence of the Maharajah of Mysore. Not only had she sight-read the piano reduction of John Foulds’s A World Requiem almost flawlessly (Foulds of course having being a significant figure in Delhi and Calcutta) but she had in her early youth suffered a crippling injury that had necessitated the amputation of all four fingers of her left hand (Dame Avril’s teacher Bernard Shore ironically had himself lost part of two fingers during war service). This remarkable and courageous young woman used the stumps of the fingers of her left hand to play the harmony whilst balancing her hand with an upturned thumb. Perhaps Dame Avril and Miss Harpa remember her and could verify whether she was, indeed, as she claimed, Foulds’s illegitimate daughter by the Ranee of Sarawak.

I think only Milstein could match Dame Avril’s prodigious accomplishments at so advanced an age; indeed the larger instrument creates even greater problems for the instrumentalist in stretching and fingering. My old friend suggested to me that the forenames of these hitherto-unknown musicians – Avril and Shamonia – might be construed as meaning April Fool and that this disc is one long viola joke writ large. It is, I am afraid, symptomatic of these low, dishonest, suspicious times that such a jaundiced view could be held by an otherwise sensitive man. For there is much more to be recorded by these gallant and accomplished ladies – more Tertis, and then the works of his contemporary, H Waldo Warner, violist of the London String Quartet. Another album would be delightful. But at 84 and 83 respectively it would be ungallant to insist they journey from their retirement home to Potton Hall in Suffolk. Guild should do the right thing and take its recording equipment and go to Faccombe.

Jonathan Woolf

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