LA VIOLA: MUSIC FOR VIOLA AND PIANO BY WOMEN COMPOSERS OF THE 20th CENTURY • Hillary Herndon (va); Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo (pn) • MSR 1416 (2 CDs: 123:36)
KEAL Ballade in f. SOULAGE Sonata for Solo Viola. DECRUCK Sonata for Viola and Piano. LE BEAU Three Pieces for Viola andRead more Piano. HARRISON Sonata for Viola and Piano. Lament. FUCHS Sonata Pastorale for Unaccompanied Viola. CLARKE Sonata for Viola and Piano
Here is one of those recording projects for which I live: an album of mostly unrecorded and unknown classical pieces by women composers, all of high quality. Most are in a late romantic style, yet all have features of interest, beginning with Minna Keal’s Ballade, written when she was only 20 years old and a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ironically, Keal’s life story is fraught with the kind of family obligations that often befall a woman. Shortly after this work’s successful premiere, she was called back to America to help her family run their business (presumably due to the economic disaster of the Depression, though the notes are silent on this). The notes indicate that she wed three times, raised a family, joined the Communist Party, and helped rescue hundreds of children from Nazi Germany. She restudied the piano as she neared retirement age and began giving lessons. At age 64 she was encouraged to return to composition, and so enrolled at the Royal College of Music to study with Oliver Knussen. I tell her particular story in detail to explain why, so often, women composers’ outputs are smaller than their male counterparts. They simply have more involved and complex lives.
Keal’s Ballade is an excellent piece, but Marcelle Soulage’s solo viola sonata is even more interesting. Divided into four movements, it explores the French romantic style one hears in the music of Fauré, despite being written in 1930. In the second movement, Soulage combines an interesting rhythmic motif with various themes, one snippet of which resembles We Three Kings of Orient Are. Personally, I found the third-movement Largo the least interesting of the four, but the final fugue is very well written, combining several changes of tempo and mood, and thus ends the sonata on an interesting note.
The viola and piano sonata of Fernande Decruck (1943) was also composed in a version for alto sax, and is in fact dedicated to saxophonist Marcel Mule. Although the sax line is altered for the viola version, Herndon feels that the viola version is entirely idiomatic, thus “one can argue that Decruck conceptualized the Sonata for viola.” There is also a version of this as a Viola Concerto with orchestra. Musically, it is closer in style to some of the more progressive French composers of the early 20th century such as Ravel, though (possibly due to its double life as a saxophone sonata) retaining a melodic, singing line throughout. In the second movement pizzicato effects are heard—I wonder how Decruck transferred these to the alto sax—but the rippling rapid triplets of the third could easily be played by both instruments. The opening of the last movement is quite curious, placing the viola very high up in its range, alternating a G? and an A in the violin spectrum, although most of the remainder of it is exceptionally lyrical.
Sadly, I found little of interest to commend Luise Le Beau’s Three Pieces for Viola and Piano to the listener. I can well believe, as Herndon put it in her notes, that Le Beau achieved a fair amount of success as a composer. This is “women’s music” the way men like to hear it: tuneful, pretty, sugary, lacking almost anything in the way of chromatics even as occasional flavoring, in short, salon pieces for your wine and brie afternoons or evenings.
Pamela Harrison’s Viola Sonata, composed in 1946, is styled after the type of chromatic and modal music several composers explored in the 1920s (Herndon believes the harmonic movement is more contemporary than I do), yet what I found particularly interesting was the way the chromatic harmonic changes sometimes “lead” the melody or vice-versa, almost as if it were an improvised piece of music in which violist and pianist were listening to each other. Moreover, the development in the first movement is quite interesting, leading into viola “flutters” and other rapid bowing techniques before a return to the theme. The peculiarly modal feel of the music continues in the second movement, written in a lilting waltz tempo and again pursuing upward climbing chromatics in the viola part (the piano, conversely, takes half-steps down after the viola goes up). What may be the most fascinating aspect of her sonata, however, is that it wasn’t published until after Harrison’s death—yet another example of a fine piece of music languishing on a shelf somewhere while some guy is saying, “Where are all the great sonatas written by women?” Her 1963 Lament was published in her lifetime (she died in 1990), and as Herndon points out, the thematic material here is much the same as the third movement of the sonata, albeit much shorter (five minutes compared to eight), thus it’s quite possible that she reworked that piece in order to get part of it published. Sadly, both versions of it are somewhat dreary and undistinguished, not nearly as creative as the other sonata movements.
Lillian Fuchs, originally a violinist, lived in the shadow of her famous brother Joseph. In a 1986 interview in The Strad, she said she didn’t mind this at all: “I just developed quietly because nobody paid any attention to me.” Oddly, however, her father did pay attention to her, so when she was invited to play second violin in Marianne Kneisel’s string quartet he put his foot down, saying she wouldn’t play second fiddle to anyone, but when Kneisel invited her to be the violist her father thought that was OK! Thus Lillian switched instruments. The group was the Perolé Quartet, and Lillian played viola in it from 1925 until the mid 1940s. She composed her unaccompanied Sonata Pastorale in 1953, by which time she was a busy and sought-after viola teacher. It is in two movements, a “fantasia” and a “pastorale.” The former is rather mysterious in both its thematic material as it snakes around C, later modulating to D. The second movement, though beginning rather “pastorale,” modulates into a busy section which then alternates with the slower melody.
Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, written in 1919 when she was 33 (she lived another 60 years), is the only piece on this set that has attained standard repertoire status. Small wonder: it’s an excellent piece of music, bracing and creative, utilizing the same sort of musical materials that one heard in the 1910s. Moreover, the thematic development takes unexpected turns, including a full stop in the first movement, before resuming its path. The piece was runner-up in a 1919 competition initiated by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the winner was Ernest Bloch), and famed British violist Lionel Tertis personally congratulated Clarke on this work. The liner notes indicate that Clarke continued to write music regularly, yet ironically none of her other works seem to have attained the status of this sonata. Herndon inadvertently enters flat in the first movement but quickly adjusts herself to give an extremely fine account of this excellent score.
I’m not sure if the microphone placement had something to do with the sound of Herndon’s viola, but on many tracks—particularly in the Keal Ballade and Harrison sonata—it has a very edgy quality that I didn’t like. I don’t think it has anything to do with her bowing technique, which sounded smooth and relatively even to me, and in some tracks her tone is more attractive than in others, but there is no question that she is a committed, emotional performer who clearly loves these works. I was also quite taken by the well-phrased and occasionally evocative piano accompaniments of Lo, who is not only technically fluent but fully involved in the spirit of each work.