Notes and Editorial Reviews
BRITISH WOMEN COMPOSERS
Clare Howick (vn); Sophia Rahman (pn)
NAXOS 8.572291 (78:09)
Violin Sonata in a.
Violin Sonata in d.
According to Caroline Waight, Joseph Joachim declined to play (Dame) Ethel Smyth’s Violin Sonata, considering it “unnatural.” But as Clare Howick (playing a 1721 Stradivari) and Sophia Rahman prove, the work, written in the 1880s (according to the notes), far from being the thorny affair that early reviews cited in the notes suggest, offers in its first movement an imposing but ingratiating combination of thunder and repose. Howick possesses an interpretive personality equal to these expressive demands, producing a thick sound with a strong, steely core, while generating sound and fury in Smyth’s powerful surges. It may be that the early critics looked for something more—a sort of delicacy—that might, on the other hand, now make the sonata seem merely a drawing-room curiosity rather than the imaginative, strong-minded musical utterance it appears to be. Smyth constructed the brief Scherzo, akin in a way to that of Brahms’s for the FAE Sonata, from short rhythmic motives, though the middle section offers some respite; Howick’s and Rahman’s terse energy brings the movement to an effective if abrupt ending. The
lasts almost as long as the opening movement (the sonata as a whole, no mere bauble, occupies almost half an hour). Listeners may note in this movement that, despite its lyricism and the playfulness of its middle section, in which Howick hardly relaxes her energetic approach, it makes the case for Smyth’s greater success in constructing dramatic plots than in spinning out ingratiating melodies. The finale blends Brahmsian autumnal feel with rhythmic vitality and, again in this commanding performance, declamatory power.
Elizabeth Maconchy’s brief Three Preludes from 1970 display a very different side of Howick’s musical personality, as she threads her way through the vigorous first movement, the reflective second, and the bustling last one—in all three of which the duo renders the spiky dissonances with sharp definition enhanced by their dynamic subtlety.
The Violin Sonata by Irène Regina Wieniawska (the daughter of the violin virtuoso Henri Wieniawski; she adopted the pseudonym of Poldowski), from the early 1910s, returns to the energy of Smyth’s sonata, but realized in darker emotional hues and in moodier, longer-breathed melodies. Howick and Rahman play the opening Andante languido with a probing suggestivity that will hardly prepare the listener for the whirlwind energy with which she tackles the ensuing Scherzo—no joke, even an Olympian one, this time. And the movement settles down into rich reflection, filtered through Howick’s particularly ingratiating tonal suavity. As if the movements had not exhibited sufficient ferocity, Wieniawska marked the finale (the longest of the three movements)
Presto con fuoco
, suggesting a manner of expression clearly congenial to the duo. But that movement, as well, also projects the opening one’s languid opulence after the tempestuous beginning. Howick’s thick, rich tone in these sections suggests Oistrakh-like butterfat, although perhaps a bit more congealed.
Phyllis Tate’s Triptych, from 1954, consists of three movements: a Prelude, a Scherzo, and a Soliloquy, all in a sort of extended tonality that stretches to accommodate spiky dissonances within its bounds—and in the first movement certainly exhibits, in the duo’s energetic yet suggestive performance, a great deal of fresh energy. Howick and Rahman play the Scherzo’s fragments with the aggressiveness and panache of two flamboyant knife-throwers. The dissonant
piano solo that opens the Soliloquy introduces a sort of in-kind commentary by the violin, in which Howick expresses herself in the upper registers with perhaps the most attractive tonal purity she achieves in the entire program. In this movement, the harmonies seem to meander farther from their moorings, though the textures and rhythmic structure of the melodies sound comparatively conventional. Her reading of the movement’s ending blends delicacy, sensitivity, and yearning. Coming almost as an encore at the end of the program, Ethel Barns’s miniature,
, allows Howick a moment of unabashed virtuosity in a genre popular in the 18th century, imitated in the 20th by Fritz Kreisler, but no more ably than by Barns (no one will need to read the notes to discover that Barns herself played the instrument well).
Since there’s no longer any reason to suppose that works written by women would be in any significant way different from those written by men, these will hardly (any longer) flout established expectations. Recommended most strongly to collectors of this nevertheless still specialized repertoire and to those who have come to admire Howick’s championship, ardent and insightful, of British composers in general.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
An ex-pupil now a professional violist said, on seeing this CD on my stereo, “That’s a brave disc!”. In some ways it is; it is also very refreshing. I used to instil - or at least attempt to - in my pupils when I taught at girls’ schools that if
they didn’t play music by women then who would? Well, Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman along with the ever-enterprising Naxos are doing just that. This disc is a fine testimony to their efforts following on from their successful foray into Cyril Scott on Naxos 8.572290.
The first work and the longest is by that doyen of feminism in music Dame
Ethel Smyth. But forgetting her sex is this
Sonata any good? I must admit to knowing it already through a version by Nicoline Kraamwinkel and Julian Rolton - members of the Chagall Trio on Meridian CDE84286 (with Smyth’s Piano Trio in D minor and Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 5). This new version is more than its equal although almost four minutes longer. It’s an early work and shows the influence of Brahms - particularly in the sonata-form opening Allegro. Apparently Brahms met Smyth and found her quite alarming. Also one might detect a touch of Dvo?ák in the
Scherzo second movement. There’s some trace of Schumann in the following
Romanza and sometimes Grieg. It’s in the strong, vibrant and dramatic finale that Smyth’s voice begins to emerge. Perhaps it was this movement that, according to Caroline Waight’s useful booklet essay, Joachim found ‘overwrought and far-fetched”. It is apt for such a Germanic work that it was first performed in Leipzig. In truth it’s difficult to think of another British violin sonata of the period, which is as fine as this, despite the fact that there are moments of note-spinning. I can’t help but wonder why it has hardly ever been taken up. At almost half an hour, it is, I suppose, quite a commitment for the performers and for the promoters to put on a fairly obscure sonata which will take up most of a half of a recital. Yet this recording surely proves their misgivings wrong.
No doubt you have attempted the car game ‘name six great Belgians’. Did you consider the composer Henryk Wieniawski’s daughter Irène Regina who was born in Brussels. That city saw this terrific
Sonata in D minor first performed. She married one Sir Aubrey Dean Paul in 1901 which is how she comes, someone tenuously, to be called a British composer. She published under the name of ‘
Poldowski’. When listening to this three movement work I at first heard Rachmaninov. Then, as it went on its passionate way, I found myself increasingly excited by the music. I started to hear, especially in the finale, traces of César Franck, not surpassingly and of Ernest Chausson. They are there to hear in the intense chromaticisms and wild and almost violent piano part. For me this work is the find of the year so far; certainly the best work on this disc. The first movement is a deliciously ‘fey’
Andante languido and the middle movement is a tripartite
Scherzo with a romantic middle section. The performers stretch their sinews to make this piece to come life and succeed whole-heartedly.
I’m writing this review just a few weeks before what will be, the centenary on 6 April 2011 of the birth of
Phyllis Tate. Listening to her original and fascinating
Triptych I find myself wondering if I will have the chance to hear anything else by her this Spring whether from a live performance or from the BBC. There should, most certainly, be other opportunities. She was famously critical and not prolific but this work offers us mystery and a probing harmony in the first movement, a mercurial Scherzo in the second and a formally complex finale marked
Soliloquy - Lento sostenuto. With the latter’s changes of mood and textures, the ear never tires and time passes quickly. This is altogether a good introduction, and is passionately played. Tate’s music is well worth searching out. Sadly she is a composer few of whose pieces are available in the catalogue.
Three Preludes of
Elizabeth Maconchy are in her fairly usual dissonant and quite uncompromisingly unromantic manner. Some listeners may be reminded of her 9
th and 10
th Quartets from broadly the same period. The first Prelude is marked
Tempo libero senza mesura and is intense and dissonant. The second has a winding fugal subject subjected to just enough treatment. The third is marked
Con allegrezza and is sinewy but full of energy. It’s a useful addition to the repertoire and contributes to our understanding of this composer.
For some reason I seem not to have come across
Ethel Barns. It seems incredible really as her music was played by all of the leading figures of her day including Joachim. She and her husband set up a concert series I’d vaguely heard of, the Barnes-Phillips Chamber concerts. Her
La Chasse is in the virtuoso encore category, the sort of piece very popular in its day. It is brilliantly handled and brings this very generously filled CD to a rousing conclusion.
-- Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Triptych by Phyllis Tate
Clare Horwick (Violin),
Sophia Rahman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
La Chase by Ethel Barns
Clare Horwick (Violin),
Sophia Rahman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: by 1928
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