I remember a party, over ten years ago, at which I met an elderly
lady who had been a pupil of Benjamin Dale. She spoke very warmly
of him as a person and of his music. She was a pianist and was especially
excited about the Piano Sonata now recognised as a masterpiece. A
couple of recordings are available but I especially like the version
by Danny Driver on Hyperion
CDA67827. To my knowledge there are only two other recordings
of Dale’s viola music: Dutton
CDLX7204 and Etcetera KTC1105.
The CD opens with the longest work. I found myself wondering why the
composer had called it a Suite, and not a Sonata. I came up
with no real reason but ‘Sonatina’ would certainly not
have been suitable. A Suite tends towards shorter and possibly lighter
music, even accompanied by a set of titles or descriptions and perhaps
with ideas taken from an opera. Anyway it rarely tends towards the
abstract although something personal and emotional may lie behind
the notes. The Dale Suite is in three movements and is a substantial
construction, rare if not unique in the viola repertoire of the time.
Lionel Tertis was the recipient of the Suite - part of his quest to
put “the viola on the map”. Interestingly Dale calls his
big opening movement a Prelude. It is in the form of a Fantasy
with a constantly developing set of strong melodies. The middle section
of the second movement, Romance, and the dance-like first subject
of the Finale have a distinctly Celtic, one may even say Baxian feel.
There’s also a touch of modality. The other ideas are definitely
set in a Romantic world and we are speaking Rachmaninov here. The
finale’s second subject is awash with effulgent harmonies and
a wide-ranging viola line. It’s odd to think that when first
performed this extrovert Finale which brings this virtuoso work to
a happy and exuberant conclusion, was not played. The work then ended
with the soft airs of the Romance and I can quite see how that
might work. However this last movement suffers from no ‘finale
problem’ and comes off brilliantly.
Dale was held captive in Germany during World War One but on his return
composed very little. Why was that? Perhaps like, Ivor Gurney, he
was psychologically scarred. However, it might have been because he
realised that the musical world, with which he may have had little
contact during that time, had changed almost overnight and his style
was no longer congenial to the new epoch. That said, it should not
be forgotten that there is also the large-scale, gorgeously nostalgic
Violin Sonata of 1926.
ThePhantasy form which had been resurrected due to the Cobbett
Prize in the early years of the century had produced some outstanding
works, not least the ones by Frank Bridge. Twelve minutes was the
suggested length. Dale, who liked to think on a bigger scale, wrote
his single movement work in 1910 and it lasts twenty minutes. A young
music student of mine commented after hearing Dale’s Phantasy
that “It’s the viola masterwork Elgar never composed”.
It’s true that some passages have the ‘nobilmente’
feel and the drive of Elgar, but the slow introduction on the piano
and the wonderful opening folk-like melody which is quite modal and
which returns towards the end after the faster music, is more in tune
with Vaughan Williams with a Gallic accent. Yuko Inoue who plays with
such beauty and commitment also comments in her excellent booklet
essay on how Lionel Tertis, who with Dale’s great friend York
Bowen premiered the work, may well have made some adjustments to the
viola writing. It’s not quite clear how many, if any, have been
retained for this recording.
In between these two vast works lies one of the great joys of this
disc: the Introduction and Andante for Six Violas. Not only
is the music superb and captivating throughout its glorious ten minutes
but also it has been recorded by six wonderful, young viola players
from the Royal Academy (pictured within). They are perfectly in tune
with this music although they can hardly have known it for long. Dale
introduces, right from the start, some dramatic effects such as a
powerful tremolando, the use of ponticello and harmonics and bowing
alongside pizzicato. He even asks the sixth viola to tune down the
bottom string a perfect fourth to accommodate the ending low A flat.
This work is magnanimous and romantic in mood but also quite English.
It’s a good advert for Dale, for the viola and for such promising
and youthful players. No wonder Dale’s teacher Frederick Corder
pronounced the work a masterpiece.
All of the performances are quite superb and in my view it would be
difficult to find them bettered. It seems that this CD emerged out
of a Viola Festival that Yuko Inoue directed in 2011. It offered young
players a chance to show their abilities and included much forgotten,
brand new or little known repertoire. This took place at the RAM and
is certainly should be a regular event.
And a further review ...
Here are two substantial works for viola and piano juxtaposed with
a ten minute piece for six violas. Lionel Tertis inspired these works.
They're all from the first decade of the last century and are the
fruit of the free-ranging late-romantic tendency seemingly fostered
or focused by the Royal Academy of Music.
Benjamin Dale's flame guttered early after burning high on the sort
of oxygen that sustained the likes of Paul Corder, Arnold Bax and
York Bowen. Their music - each sui generis - favoured Liszt,
Tchaikovsky and the Russian nationalists. They embraced wild, woolly,
moody, instinctive and rhapsodic where the scions of Parry and Stanford
at the RCM drank deep Brahmsian draughts.
The Suite is a meaty three movement work from Dale's very short list
of works. The moody Fantasy-Prelude recalls the dark and psychologically
spidery rhapsodising of the Bax Viola Sonata. The Romance is
more liberated and passionate and flies high and wide, at times suggestive
of Korngold. It too feels a pull towards slowly shifting shadows but
often spins most tender romance. This can be heard at 08:01 in II
which has a lovingly spun melody of which Yuko Inoue is a sensitive
and eloquent advocate. She finds this again in the Finale. Where other
composers might have termed this work a Sonata Dale opted for the
more romantically accommodating Suite - a typically unbuttoned RAM choice.
Not that Dale did not write sonatas. After all the most famous or
least obscure of his works is his epic piano sonata dedicated to York
The Introduction and Andante for six violas is another serious
work spun from the same cloth as the Bax Rhapsody for viola
and orchestra. It makes for an agreeable melos - just in case you
were wondering. It sounds, from the title and specification, to be
an academic one-off. So it might have been but let me just emphasise
that that this is a most fascinating piece of romantic-impressionist
writing. The prospects of hearing it in concert may be rare but this
recording gives you a chance to revel in its exultant almost Viennese
density of melody and its touching power to communicate.
Finally comes the Cobbett work, the Phantasy for viola and
piano. It’s in one single twenty minute span. It was premiered
by Dale and Bowen and began life with an even more Baxian title: ‘Ballade’.
The work begins in supernatural and dank mode but shifts in atmosphere
as good Phantasies should. It moves from sinister to serenading to
imaginative flights which lean into Kreislerian succulence.
Liner-notes, recording and performances serve these romantic early
twentieth century works very well indeed.
Previous review: Nick
Dale - a reassessment by Christopher Foreman