Elgar & Sawyers: Violin Sonatas

Release Date: 1/14/2014
Label: Nimbus
Catalog Number: NI6240
Orchestra/Ensemble: Steinberg Duo
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Low Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews

SAWYERS Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2. ELGAR Violin Sonata Louisa Stonehill (vn); Nicholas Burns (pn) NIMBUS 6240 (61:40)

Nicholas Burns’s notes tell of his meeting Philip Sawyers in a youth orchestra in Kent and exploring at that time the young composer’s First Violin Sonata. Burns and his wife, violinist Louisa Stonehill, commissioned the second, 42 years later, and they’ve paired the two sonatas with Edward Elgar’s in their program, as they claim they do in live performance.

The opening interval of the First Sonata’s violin part and its accompaniment together may briefly recall the opening Brahms’s Third Violin Sonata. Burns’s notes maintain that Sawyers avoided avant-garde techniques and effects, but his harmonies even in this early work wander far beyond what Brahms could have written (perhaps approaching more closely Hindemith’s expanded tonality) and embedded in a thoroughly idiomatic violinistic milieu that comfortably embraces dissonances. Listeners may detect in the slow movement melodic patterns that might almost fit into the “Nigun” from Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem . In this movement, but throughout the Sonata, as well, Stonehill draws a generally dark tone from her violin, modeled by Glen Collins in 2010 on Yehudi Menuhin’s Lord Wilton Guarneri del Gesù. It also occasionally sounds hoarse as well, especially in its middle registers. Stonehill and Burns bring a crisp, almost abrasive energy to the Finale; here, as elsewhere, the engineers have captured the duo’s wide dynamic range.

If the voice of Sawyers’s earlier early Sonata still speaks through the (much) later Second, that voice has nevertheless grown weightier and more complex. The composer also seems to have explored more deeply the earlier work’s moody expressivity: In particular, the first movement features vibrant interchanges between the pianist and violinist that take the listener across borders that the earlier work didn’t breach. The notes suggest that a tone row forms the basis of the second movement’s theme; but the harmonic framework remains largely intact, with some cadential moments sounding virtually tonal. Stonehill and Burns rise to a visceral and almost frightening peroration in the movement’s climaxes. The Sonata in general, and the third movement in particular, pose striking technical challenges (as well as expressive ones), especially in the flurries of notes at the Sonata’s end, that the duo meets with aplomb.

Burns’s notes make much of Sawyers’s and Elgar’s similarly anachronistic musical styles; but with the breaking of serialism’s rigid hegemony, it may come as no surprise that in recent years Burns senses a warmer reception for Sawyers’s. The duo effectively communicates the urgency of the Elgar Sonata’s first movement (even if, very occasionally, they fail to maintain their aplomb in highly expressive double-stopped passages)—but they also allow its perfumed poignancy to emerge naturally. In the second movement, they balance coquettishness with ardor. In the third, they combine forward momentum with almost nostalgic reminiscence. In Fanfare 30:3, on the other hand, I described Lorraine McAslan and John Blakely’s reading (Resonance RSN 3060) as strong rather than sweet. And while Daniel Hope, on Nimbus NI 5666 may have introduced a pungency lacking in McAlsan’s reading, Nigel Kennedy played the Sonata with what John D. Wiser referred to in Fanfare 9:1 as possessing Fritz Kreisler’s and Albert Sammons’s expressivity.

The Steinberg Duo has released an intensely personal program that should, nevertheless, appeal broadly to explorers and to those who value the kind of intimacy Stonehill and Burns bring to their partnership, both in Elgar’s familiar by but also in the premiere recordings of Sawyers’s sonatas. Warmly recommended.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
1. Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op. 82 by Sir Edward Elgar
Orchestra/Ensemble: Steinberg Duo
Period: Romantic
Written: 1918 ; England
2. Sonata No. 1 for violin & piano by Philip Sawyers
Orchestra/Ensemble: Steinberg Duo
Period: Modern
Written: 1969 ;
3. Sonata No. 2 for violin & piano by Philip Sawyers
Orchestra/Ensemble: Steinberg Duo
Period: Contemporary
Written: 2011 ;
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