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Viola Sonatas, Idylls and Bacchanals
Sir John Blackwood McEWEN (1868–1948)
Sonata for viola and piano in A minor (1941) [19:45]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883–1953)
Sonata for viola and piano (1922) [22:29]
Sir John Blackwood McEWEN (1868–1948)
Improvisations Provençales for violin and piano (1937) [23:58]
Breath o’ June for viola and piano (1913) [3:24]
Dame Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907–1994)
Sonata for viola and piano (1938) [13:45]
Gordon JACOB (1895–1984)
Sonatina for viola and piano (1949) [12:33]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905–1971)
Sonata for viola and piano (1937, revised 1953) [15:14]
Robin MILFORD (1903–1959)
Four Pieces for viola and piano (1935) [8:17]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
Fantasia on the name of BACH for viola and piano, Op. 29 (1955)
Louise Williams (viola, violin)
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, England, 7-9 April 2011
(Bax, McEwen: Breath o’June), 5 January 2012 (McEwen: Improvisations
Provençales), 8-10 April 2012 (CD2)
EM RECORDS EMR CD007-008 [69:37 + 63:13]
This double set from ‘The Spirit of England’ series on EM Records
is a generous collection of English chamber works for viola
and piano. Actually one of the nine scores is for violin and
piano. Of the seven composers featured Bax is by far the best
known composer. He has done well in the recording studio over
the last few decades but far less well in the concert and recital
hall. In particular Chandos, Naxos, Hyperion and Lyrita have
done sterling work.
The remaining composers on the release in all probability became
victims of fashion falling into neglect. There remains a steady
spark of interest in British composers from the first half of
the twentieth century and one hopes their torch may begin to
burn brighter in years to come. I consider all the music on
this release to be easily accessible, inhabiting a tonal, late-romantic
style of a bygone age.
Hawick-born composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen is best known
today for his Solway Symphony. My introduction to his
music was from hearing three discs forming part of an incomplete
Chandos set of McEwen’s string quartets played by the Chilingirian
Quartet. Associated for many years with the Royal Academy of
Music (RAM) in London McEwen is represented here by three works.
The Sonata for viola and piano in A minor from 1941,
the last decade of McEwen’s life, is cast in four movements.
Most notable is the lengthy opening movement tinged with a melancholy
evocative tolling bell. The writing is variegated with uplifting
episodes of joy. I did notice what felt like minor tuning problems
with the viola especially in the achingly beautiful second movement.
The Allegretto, Scherzo is a light and carefree
romp followed by the extremely brisk and upbeat Finale
suggestive of a vibrant country-dance.
Written in 1937 by McEwen at Cannes on the French Côte d'Azur
the Improvisations Provençales for violin and piano
has six movements, each given a descriptive title in the Provençal
Occitan dialect. This is a substantial score that varies from
the benign rhythms of ‘The Heavy Heart’, to the serious rather
grey and apprehensive world of ‘Oouliveio’, to a rather restrained
folkdance in ‘The Piper’.
Breath o’June for viola and piano, a short single movement
from 1913 was composed whilst staying on the French Atlantic
coast. This is certainly an attractive piece although rather
uneventful in mood.
Bax, like McEwen, was also a pupil at the RAM. A student of
the Gaelic language he felt an extremely strong almost obsessional
connection to Celtic mythology. The three movement Viola
Sonata doesn’t seem to contain any obvious Celtic references.
Composed in the decade after the First World War, a period of
great unrest in Ireland, the work seems more of a farewell to
the idyllic ‘Celtic twilight’ of Bax’s youth. The opening has
an intensely sombre atmosphere with a calmer central passage.
Briskly played, the central movement is weighty with a determined
quality that borders on anger. Similar to the opening movement
the Finale feels prosaic with a dark and discomforting
feeling combined with a strong sense of yearning.
Maconchy although born in England grew up in Ireland. At the
Royal College of Music (RCM) Maconchy studied with Charles Wood
and Vaughan Williams later travelling to Prague for further
tuition. I know Maconchy best for her set of string quartets
that reveal influences of Bartók and Janácek. Here Maconchy
is represented by her three movement Viola Sonata from
1938. After hearing the work several times it certainly deserves
to be heard more often. The brisk and bustling opening Allegro
feels resolute but the pressure eases in a slower central passage.
Full of tension the Lento moderato is followed by a
densely written Presto, Finale full of angry,
Gordon Jacob was born in 1894 in London becoming a Stanford
pupil at the RCM where he met Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells,
Bliss, Gurney and Moeran. Jacob’s strong connection with the
RCM continued as he taught there himself for over forty years.
Jacob’s Sonatina for viola and piano is a three movement
score composed in 1949. Fresh and breezy the opening Allegro
giusto feels alive and highly energetic. In the central
slow movement the viola plays a tender melody over a percussive
piano part that together generates a feeling of considerable
tension. Marked Allegro con brio the brisk writing
of the Finale feels bouncy, sprite-like and filled
Lancastrian Alan Rawsthorne was a pupil at the Royal Manchester
College of Music also studying for a time in both Poland and
Berlin. Today Rawsthorne is best known for his score to the
1953 film of Nicholas Monsarrat’s wartime novel The Cruel
Sea. Rawsthorne’s four movement Viola Sonata was
introduced in 1937. Then the score was thought lost and was
rediscovered sixteen years later. As I expected from Rawsthorne
this is a weighty and most intriguing score of real quality.
There is a relentless character to the opening Maestoso
- Molto allegro featuring music of a squally, windswept
nature suffused with a strong sense of anxiety. A mad-cap romp,
the Scherzo is reminiscent of a moto perpetuo
and the intensely sombre Adagio feels deliberate and
reminds me of a funeral march. This finely wrought work concludes
with an extremely high spirited Rondo, Finale.
Robin Milford studied at the RCM under Vaughan Williams; Holst
and R.O. Morris. After leaving the RCM the Oxford-born Milford
became a great friend of Gerald Finzi. From my experience Milford
is better known by reputation than by actual performances. Milford’s
score the Four Pieces for viola and piano from 1935
is an attractive work that opens with a light and charming Air.
Following on is the Musettea a traditional French dance
featuring a most attractive melody. The weightier writing of
the Serenade has a far more resolute quality than what
has gone before and the concluding Gavot a traditional
French dance feels lively and almost childlike in nature rather
The final work on the release is by Yorkshireman Kenneth Leighton
who studied at the Queen's College, Oxford. Winning a
Mendelssohn Scholarship, Leighton chose to study in Rome becoming
interested in the Second Viennese School and the atonal music
of Luigi Dallapiccola. Leighton’s most prestigious appointment
was as Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.
The Leighton score here is the Fantasia on the name of BACH
for viola and piano from 1955. Cast in a single movement
this has four distinct sections. Marked Adagio sostenuto
the opening consists of intensely mournful writing that reminded
me of the desolate sound world often heard in Shostakovich.
Here the piano part is as prominent as the viola. The Allegro
ritmico feels determined and forceful and is coloured by
a slightly dark quality. Towards the end the music becomes more
frenzied. Marked Lento the intense writing felt a touch
dour. The final section a Fugue is brisk and unyielding,
somewhat headstrong with real forward momentum.
Violist Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris are sterling
advocates for this English chamber music repertoire. It is difficult
to find fault with the quality of the playing. These are refined
performances from two accomplished players of highly approachable
music. In the accompanying booklet I found the rather curious
notes sometimes readable, sometimes over-technical. Much more
detailed notes are available on the EM Records website although
I’m unsure why they were not included in the booklet. The sound
quality from the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton is consistently
well recorded with good balance and clarity. English music is
again well served by this disc of music for viola and piano
from EM Records.