Three cello and piano masterpieces on one disc takes a lot beating … and I do not use the word ‘masterpiece’ lightly. If any of these sonatas were by a Russian, Frenchman or German, they would be safely established in the recital room repertoire. As it is, they cling tenaciously to that stock of British music supported largely by enthusiasts.
One or two facts and figures will suffice. York Bowen’s essay has, including the present CD, three recordings, the Arnold Bax three and John Ireland weighs in on top with a massive ten versions. Compare this to 22 CDs of Barber’s Cello Sonata, some 62 recordings of that by Shostakovich and 91 of Rachmaninov’s excellent work.
I suggest beginning the exploration of this CD with Arnold Bax’s Sonata in E flat major. The work was completed towards the end of 1923 and duly received its premiere at the Wigmore Hall with Harriet Cohen accompanying Beatrice Harrison on 26 February 1924. It is the longest work here, lasting just over the half-hour mark. Edwin Evans wrote that this dramatic music may suggest a ‘poetic basis which might almost take a narrative form.’ It is not clear what this ‘narrative’ may allude to. Certainly the opening movement suggests ‘derring-do’. The gorgeous ‘poco lento’ has a touch of the South to its mood: Evans has suggested that it could be subtitled ‘In an Italian Garden’. This mood is far removed from Bax’s usual haunts in Scandinavia, Scotland and Eire. The ‘finale’ is much more aggressive, perhaps even ‘devilish’, but all is finally put to rights with the return of a more intimate mood in the ‘epilogue’.
Overall the lyricism of this Sonata is what impressed me most. There are gorgeous tunes presented which seem to come one after the other, especially in the slow movement. The music generally seems to be ‘tinged ... with wistful regret.’ The playing recognises the music’s complex emotional journey. The players are sensitive to the various moods.
A number of years ago, (1998) the British Music Society released a sterling album of English Cello Sonatas including those by John Foulds, Ernest Walker and York Bowen. The soloists were Jo Cole and John Talbot. I was impressed by all three works, but the Bowen struck me as my favourite. I was bowled over by this romantic-sounding composer: it was the first work other than his piano music that I had heard.
Thomas Dunhill, writing in Cobbett’s Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music wrote that ‘York Bowen’s chamber music is predominantly brilliant in style. He may be described as a romanticist with sympathies in the direction of impressionism.’ Bowen has often been termed the ‘English Rachmaninov’, and there is some justification in this nickname, especially where his piano writing is concerned. However, his Cello Sonata is so wholly original in its romantic voice that any comparison probably does both composers an injustice.
The piano part is massive and full of technical difficulties: it is a true virtuosic partnership between soloists. It would be easy to try to pick out influences. These would include Brahms in the opening movement and the French impressionists in the ‘lento serioso’. The finale could be deemed a little more ‘modern’.
Bowen’s downfall was that his music came to be seen as passé as the 20th century progressed and was quickly forgotten. It is only in the past twenty years or so that music enthusiasts have become prepared to accept composers at face value and not deride them because they did not adopt one or another contemporary style or technique.
The Cello Sonata was composed during 1921 and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison and York Bowen at the Wigmore Hall on 8 December 1921.
John Ireland’s Cello Sonata was completed during December 1923, so it is almost exactly contemporary with Bax’s essay. It was given its premiere at a Federation of Music Clubs concert by Beatrice Harrison and the pianist Evlyn Howard Jones in 1924. It is conceived in three movements, a ‘moderato e sostenuto’, a ‘poco largamente’ and a brief ‘finale, con moto a marcato’. There is much cross-referencing of themes between the movements which gives the work a strong sense of unity. The opening ‘moderato’ is quite troubled in its exposition. I have always found the middle movement of this sonata the most moving and impressive and the playing of this is my touchstone for evaluating any given performance. Paul and Huw Watkins give a fine account which is passionate but never loses self-control. I have suggested in the past that this ‘poco largamente’ is ‘pastoral’ in its concept, creating an impression of an ideal world. However, there is nothing of the ‘cow-and-gate’ here. It is retrospective music rather than descriptive. The final movement is untypical of the composer with its acerbic, almost aggressive writing. Calum MacDonald in the liner-notes suggests that some of this music sounds like Prokofiev.
Ireland’s Sonata cannot be described as a tone poem, nevertheless it has been recognised that it has a similar ‘mystical’ mood to works such as The Forgotten Rite and Mai Dun. At this period the composer was much influenced by the landscape around Chanctonbury Hill and a nearby locale known as ‘The Devil’s Jump’.
The composer and musicologist Marion Scott succinctly described this work as ‘...beginning quietly for cello alone is cumulative and (ends) very brilliantly.’
I have noted the relative number of recordings of these works above. It would be a hard job to chose between them and decide which was best. Paul and Huw Watkins give hugely impressive and ultimately sympathetic performances of all three works. If pressed I would say that the Bax impressed me most, although the Bowen is so romantic that it would be difficult not to enjoy and be moved.
The recording itself is excellent and the engineers have ideally balanced the cello and piano.
The programme notes are a model of their kind giving an overview of each composer and a detailed but not overly technical description of each work. The CD cover puns on Elizabeth Lutyens’ comment about the ‘Cow-Pat school of music’, except this time it is a sheep that peers through a gap in the wall. Nothing could be further from the truth with this romantically-charged music. I noted above that the programme selection was ideal and there is a generous 75 minutes of music.
This is an ideal CD for all British music enthusiasts, although I would hope that all lovers of the cello would be inspired to purchase this disc. It is a fine programme of three stunning sonatas, inspiringly played and beautifully presented.