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Viola Sonatas, Idylls & Bacchanals

Williams / Norris / Mcewen
Release Date: 02/12/2013 
Label:  Em Records   Catalog #: 7   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Blackwood McEwenArnold BaxJohn McEwenDame Elizabeth Maconchy,   ... 
Performer:  Louise WilliamsDavid Owen Norris
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VIOLA SONATAS, IDYLLS AND BACCHANALS Louise Williams (vla, vn); 1 David Owen Norris (pn) EM CD007/008 (2 CDs: 133:54)

McEWEN Viola Sonata. 1 Improvisations provençales. Breath o’June. BAX Viola Sonata. MACONCHY Viola Sonata. Read more class="COMPOSER12">JACOB Sonatina for Viola and Piano. RAWSTHORNE Viola Sonata. MILFORD Four Pieces. LEIGHTON Fantasia on the name BACH

The repertoire of the viola has received increased exposure on disc of late, revealing much first-rate music and many neglected treasures. In particular, recordings of British viola music (both concertos and chamber music) are proliferating, thanks to advocates like Lawrence Power. Now, under the auspices of the English Music Festival, we are offered this interesting collection of sonatas and other works played by Louise Williams, a violist who has played in the Endellion and Chiligrian String Quartets and the Nash Ensemble, and is currently a member of the Frith Piano Quartet. Her partner is that redoubtable champion of British music David Owen Norris. Their program is of considerable weight, containing at least five substantial works, few of which have had previous recordings.

The first disc opens with the Viola Sonata by John McEwen (1868-1948). This delightful late work in four movements has musical affiliations with the English pastoral tradition, notably in the perky dance of the opening, but later McEwen calls upon Koechlin to provide oriental textures in the sultry second movement. The economy and assuredness of McEwen’s writing bespeaks a lifetime of composing for these instruments.Williams forgoes the viola for the violin in the Improvisations provençales. These pieces sound even more French—unsurprisingly, as they are sophisticated transcriptions and variations on folk songs (presumably—the source material remains unknown). Several strongly recall the sound world of Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Despite the fin de siècle atmosphere, this music is also from late in McEwen’s career (1937), which possibly explains its misty, nostalgic flavor.

The primary work on the first disc is the Sonata by Arnold Bax, which has had several recordings. Bax’s First Piano Sonata was reworked as his First Symphony and the textures in this contemporary Viola Sonata are similarly king-sized, often suggesting a full orchestra, especially in the dynamic central movement. Both musicians meet Bax’s formidable challenges head on, creating plenty of light and heat when it is asked for and negotiating the sometimes tricky chromatic lines with aplomb.

The second disc consists of more modernist works. The Viola Sonata by Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) introduces a dramatic and occasionally austere world, even though her sonata was written three years before McEwen’s. Maconchy’s string writing is immaculate (as it would be from a noted writer of string quartets). Her three-movement work is notable for its sense of purpose: From the very first phrase this music is going somewhere. The second movement centers on a repeated thematic fragment of a sinuous Middle-Eastern character, while the finale is driven by the contrapuntal energy of Hindemith. Gordon Jacob’s well-written Sonata of 1949 employs a lighter touch, its pleasant lyrical aspect combined with deft high spirits. A serious tone returns with Alan Rawsthorne’s 1937 Sonata, its fleet scherzo beautifully paced by Williams and Norris. The slow movement, a troubled Adagio , shows more heart than we might expect from this composer. The Four Pieces by the little-known Robin Milford (1903-1959) are gentler in tone, easy on the ear in a rippling, well mannered English way. The real find for me, though, was the final work, the Fantasia on the name BACH by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988). Leighton, besides being an astonishing pianist, was a composer of tough, sinewy music that grows in stature with each hearing. His First Symphony and Third Piano Concerto (coupled on a Chandos disc) are absolutely gripping, and this 15-minute Fantasia proves to be equally so. Beginning with a melody in the viola’s lower range, accompanied by Brittenish figures in the piano, the tension soon builds. Leighton’s sophisticated use of harmony and counterpoint maintains a sense of unease as the tempo increases, and as with McEwen’s sonata (which this work resembles not in the least) economy of texture is a distinct plus. A gentle respite around the halfway point proves welcome, with a quasi-chorale high in the piano accompanying a lyrical yearning theme from the viola, before we plunge back into contrapuntal activity.

I have not considered alternative recordings, when they exist (notably of the Bax and Rawsthorne sonatas) because this program is unique and, as I have hinted, played with real commitment and panache by these excellent musicians. Unlike many a mixed chamber recital, there is a welcome lack of the trivial in this selection. Even the lighter works by Jacob and Milford have musical integrity. Sound is close, but warm and well balanced. A truly distinguished release from a small label, this deserves to be widely heard.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Viola and Piano by Arnold Bax
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1922; England 
Breath o' June by John McEwen
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1913; London, England 
Sonata for Viola and Piano in A minor by John McEwen
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941 
Improvisations Provençales by John McEwen
Performer:  David Owen Norris (Piano), Louise Williams (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937 
Sonata for Viola and Piano by Dame Elizabeth Maconchy
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938 
Sonatina for Viola and Piano by Gordon Jacob
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949 
Sonata for Viola and Piano by Alan Rawsthorne
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937/1953 
Pieces (4) for Viola and Piano by Robin Milford
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935 
Fantasia for Viola and Piano on B-A-C-H, Op. 29 by Kenneth Leighton
Performer:  Louise Williams (Viola), David Owen Norris (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1955; England 

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