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Sir Donald TOVEY (1875–1940)
Chamber Music - Volume 2
Variations on a theme by Gluck, Op.28 for flute and string quartet [14:33]
Piano Quintet in C, Op.6 [55:04]
Ormesby Ensemble
rec. 2015, St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London
First recording (quintet)

It’s fair to say that I have been waiting a long time for this disc – I have volume 1 of Toccata’s chamber music series (which included the piano trios) and I bought that back in 2010 (review). I am, therefore, very pleased to report that after a rather long break, Toccata continues the series.

The first piece on the disc is written for the unusual combination of flute and string quartet. This is the first piece I am aware of that uses this combination of instruments and, on the strength of this work. it’s a shame that others haven’t used it more often. The opening theme of the work is lovely and works very effectively for this unusual combination of instruments. The following 6 variations carry varying tempo directions and moods, the first being predominantly slow and yearning in feel. This leads directly into a more rapid variant in which the cello takes the lead. There is much interest in the variation with the tune passing and varying from one register to another in an interesting fashion. Next is a ‘Larghetto’ but to me, this doesn’t seem very slow at all, it goes along at a fair rate of knots with slightly slower interludes. There is some mysterious writing here especially around 1:40 which seems more ahead of its time than it should be. Variation 4 is fast again and concentrates on the string quartet which provides most of the music here with the flute accompanying. The last two movements follow without a break, a serene ‘Adagio’ with lots of pizzicato string playing leading into an ‘Andante’ which starts off in a Mendelssohnian way with scurrying strings and the flute providing an embellished version of the theme to round off this charming piece. Overall, the writing for the flute reminded me of the solo passages in Brahms’s “Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale”, Op.56a. I do really like this work, it is well worth getting to know as there is much of interest and the playing is superb. The voicing and interplay between the flautist Sarah Brooke and the members of the string quartet is spot on and the music contains much of interest.

The following Piano Quintet is hugely long – it seems that this composer had difficulty in writing short works at the beginning of his career as the Piano trio on volume 1 was also on a large scale! Anyway, this almost 18-minute-long first movement is brimming with interesting and varied material all within the strict confines of sonata form. From the opening with the full quintet, you get the impression that this is a big work with plenty of power in it, all handled marvellously by the ensemble. There is much of interest to the listener, although because of the length of this work, it takes several listens to get your ears around all that is happening. Once this is done, you can appreciate the details, the strings beginning, building to a powerful statement of what is the opening theme of the work with the whole ensemble joining in. The piano leads much of the music, perhaps reflecting the fact that Tovey was a pianist as well as a composer. The striving string themes at around 2:00 (later taken up by the piano and evolved into something gentler) remind me of something but I can’t quite place what. There are moments of beauty in this movement, interspersed with more powerful writing for all concerned. The passages around 10 minutes in, full of downward proceeding string writing with the piano providing chords is wonderful and memorable. This settles to music of an almost religious feeling before dissolving back to more quiet musings by the violin with the piano murmuring in the background. There is a lovely quiet tune behind the strings at about 12:20 – I missed it on the first few listens but it really is wonderful counterpoint to what the strings are doing. Keep an ear open for it, it’s well worth listening out for! There is some sumptuous writing after this, which gradually gains in strength and complexity before very surprisingly evolving into some amazingly quiet writing with enchanting harmonies. Really strangely, the music almost stops at about 16 minutes and goes very, very quiet before winding up to a loud and decisive conclusion. This is splendid stuff! The following ‘Allegretto’ in A flat is also pretty long at almost 11 minutes in duration on this, the first recording. The opening is rather whimsical and meanders along very prettily for a few minutes before a darker atmosphere takes over. This doesn’t last for long as the long winding elements return, only again to be usurped by some unsettling writing for the strings about 6 minutes in. The following two minutes gradually re-establish the amiable character of the music as well as injecting some power into the proceedings. Around 7:35 there is a lovely bouncy tune led by the piano and accompanied by the quintet which is really wonderful and it builds to a small climax at 8:10 before falling back into more relaxed writing. The main themes are further embellished providing a quiet and hushed conclusion to this movement. The third movement is longer than the preceding one and is a ‘Largo appassionato’ in F minor, starting on the viola before the other instruments join in. This is a really passionate movement, full of superb writing for everyone and some splendidly evocative playing from all present. The melody from about 5 – 6 minutes in contains some very soulful music, quite tragic and unsettling to listen to. This feeling does not last for long as determined music occurs which leads to further motivic development of the opening themes on various instruments. The writing, as the movement winds to a close is less Brahms-like and reminds me of a song without words with the violin substituting for the voice. Ultimately it is the process of development which generates much of this movement and these are wound up nicely to the conclusion, where the music dies away quietly with a hint of pathos. The finale, an ‘Allegro largamente’ is again very long at 14 minutes in duration. This is a superb piece, well-constructed with memorable music throughout. The piano carries much of the tune; however there are moments when the strings are more to the fore, especially from about 3 minutes in, when the cello and later the other instruments lead to some more reflective music. There are hints of Schumann here, but this peaceful music doesn’t last long, as more impetuous material arrives via the piano to continue the movement. The section that follows is more confident and striving and leads to some writing in which everyone gets involved to create a complex pattern of sound with interludes of just the strings. At about 6 minutes, a lovely theme occurs, led by the piano. Again, this sounds like a ‘song without words’ and the cello provides some gorgeous accompaniment before things get more boisterous again. The whole finale seems to consist of alternating sections of powerful writing and then quieter reflective sections but despite this, it holds together very well – helped by the underlying thematic unity and the commitment of the players. I particularly like the delicate section with piano trills at about 8 minutes. This is incredibly elusive and the muted strings provide beautiful background support. As might be expected from a virtuoso pianist-composer, the pianist has some considerable demands made on him/her and Olga Dudnik copes extremely well with these at all times. Her playing in the slower sections is ravishing and the whole ensemble works together superbly. This ‘trilling’ section returns again about 10:40 and seems to act as a lead into the conclusion of the movement and the work where everything is wound up to a virtuoso conclusion for all the instruments and a powerful, positive and dramatic conclusion. Overall, this is a fascinating work, which I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. It is full of complexity and some very assured writing by a composer who really knew what he was doing and deserves to be better known and appreciated, other than just as an essayist.

As I stated earlier, there are hints of Brahms and Schumann here, not in the themes in these works as such but more a sense of the way everything is handled. In summary, there is some really excellent chamber music here – couple this fact with the outstanding playing by the Ormesby Ensemble, the first-rate and extensive liner notes and the lovely clear recording in which all the details are present and correct and Toccata Classics have created another winner. I shall continue to enjoy this disc for many listens to come and I am really looking forward to volume 3.

Jonathan Welsh



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