Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonata in A.
Cello Sonata in Eb.
Cello Sonata in g
Paul Watkins (vc); Huw Watkins (pn)
CHANDOS 10792 (75:28)
In recent months, I’ve received at least three, maybe four, new releases of British cello music, one or another of which included works by these same composers. So, it’s understandable that when I received this new Chandos CD, labeled
British Works for Cello and Piano, Volume 2
, I thought I’d reviewed Volume 1, but apparently not; and if the
Archive is up to date, it doesn’t appear that anyone else has either. To make matters worse, for all of the British cello works I
I knew, I’m not familiar with a single one on this disc, nor, to the best of my knowledge, have any of them ever been reviewed here.
The most logical explanation for this absence, at least with regard to the Bowen and Bax sonatas, is that recordings seem to be quite rare. ArkivMusic lists only one other version of the Bax, besides this new one, and it’s a 1950s mono Lyrita LP transfer with Florence Hooten and Wilfrid Parry. Likewise, there is only one other listing for the Bowen, albeit a more recent one, on BMS with Jo Cole and John Talbot. Only the Ireland Sonata has received a fair amount of attention on disc, with approximately 10 recordings. But wait, there’s a catch. More than one of those recordings present Ireland’s Cello Sonata in a transcription for viola by Lionel Tertis. In that guise, a performance of the piece by Martin Outram and Julian Rolton on Naxos was reviewed by Steven Ritter in 34:1.
York Bowen’s Cello Sonata in A Major dates from 1921, and is the earliest-composed of the three sonatas here. It’s a big-gestured work that immediately grabs your attention with a flourish of Impressionist-tinted piano chords. Bowen (1884–1961) dedicated the work to critically acclaimed cellist Beatrice Harrison, who, in the same year that this Sonata was composed, gave the first performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto outside of London at the Three Choirs Festival. Bowen’s Sonata gives the impression of being through-composed (though it isn’t), which is another way of saying, I suppose, that it seems to progress in a perpetual state of development. Its ever-shifting harmonies and vague tonality are clearly influenced by Debussy, but its physical build and stride are of both Brahmsian bearing and Straussian substance.
Beatrice Harrison was a busy lady, much sought after by a number of British composers of the period, including Arnold Bax (1883–1953). In 1923, two years after the cellist premiered Bowen’s Sonata, Harrison premiered Bax’s Eb-Major Cello Sonata with pianist Harriet Cohen, the composer’s long-time lover. The music seems at once both more and less Modernistic than Bowen’s. Its harmonies are less exploratory of Impressionist chords and progressions, but its rhythmic restiveness and jarring juxtapositions of wildly contrasting moods speak a slightly more progressive language than Bowen’s. Perhaps it’s the technical difficulty of the thing that has put cellists off; but if it’s not that, then it’s hard to fathom the neglect Bax’s Sonata has suffered, because it’s a powerful and moving work.
John Ireland (1879–1962) was five years older than Bowen and four years older than Bax, but he was the last on board with a cello sonata, completing his G-Minor Sonata in 1923, the same year that Bax composed his Sonata. Ireland’s Sonata, also written for Beatrice Harrison, is the most conservative of the three cello sonatas on the disc, which is to say it’s the one that comes closest to revealing its Romantic roots in terms of its tonal language, melodic profusion, traditional harmonic procedures, and regularity of cadential resolution. This, no doubt, explains why it has achieved rather more popularity among cellists and has shown up more often on record.
On more than one occasion, I’ve sung the praises of Paul Watkins, unquestionably, in my opinion, one of today’s foremost cellists. This new album further bolsters his reputation with gorgeous tonal bloom, ample technique to surmount the thorniest technical passages, and perhaps most inspiring of all, performances that are musically sensitive and deeply committed emotionally to these works. I’ve also had the opportunity to praise pianist Huw Watkins, who often partners with Paul, for his outstanding playing and true chamber-music-making instincts.
This is an enormously satisfying CD, with music and performances further enhanced by Chandos’s as always wide and deep soundstage recording. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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