Friday 23 October 2015

Fenella Humphreys’ new recording of solo violin works by composers from Bach and Ysaÿe to Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse and Piers Hellawell for Champs Hill Records demonstrates this artist’s formidable talent

British violinist Fenella Humphreys studied with Sidney Griller, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf. She has taken part in masterclasses with musicians including Thomas Brandis, Lorand Fenyves, Anthony Marwood, Thomas Riebl and Krzysztof Penderecki.

She enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work with performances around the world at such venues as the Wigmore Hall, London; the South Bank Centre, London and the new Helsinki Music Centre, Finland.  She has broadcast for the BBC; Classic FM; DeutschlandRadio Berlin; West-Deutsche-Rundfunk; ABC Classic FM, Australia and Korean radio. She has performed the Walton Concerto at the composer’s home at the invitation of the Walton Trust in a performance that was recorded by Canadian TV.

As well as Concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerakademie, Fenella Humphreys also enjoys guest leading and directing various ensembles in Europe.  As a chamber musician she has collaborated with artists including Alexander Baillie, Adrian Brendel, Pekka Kuusisto and Martin Lovett. She is regularly invited by Steven Isserlis to take part in the prestigious Open Chamber Music at the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove, Cornwall, UK.   

Her first concerto recording, of Christopher Wright’s Violin Concerto for Dutton Epoch with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Martin Yates, was released in 2012.  

During 2014/15 Fenella Humphreys premiered Bach to the Future, a set of six new unaccompanied violin works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse, Sally Beamish, Adrian Sutton, Piers Hellawell and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.   The project has so far seen performances at Aldeburgh, St. Magnus Festival, Presteigne Festival, Ryedale Festival, The Forge, Manchester University, Queen’s University and Belfast. It is to be recorded over two CDs for Champs Hill Records.  

Volume 1 of this project has recently been released by Champs Hill Records  and, in addition to solo violin works by Bach, Ysaÿe, Biber and Cyril Scott, includes works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse and Piers Hellawell. 


With Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 we have some very fine playing,  a beautifully phrased and nuanced Preludio with terrific fluency and textures, Fenella Humphreys finding just the right carefully controlling the tempi. There is a finely shaped Loure and a beautifully pointed up Gavotte en Rondeau where this violinist brings many distinctive touches. Menuett I & II bring some fine sonorities. Though taken at a rather slower pace than is usually the case, this artist shapes the music beautifully. The Bourée brings a real contrast, fast forward moving with this violinist bringing an immediacy and spontaneity, something that carries over into the very fine Gigue.

The recorded acoustic tends to add a rather bright sound but the ear soon adjusts – and with playing this good one is soon totally caught up in the music making.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s (b.1980) Suite No. 1 for Solo Violin was written as a direct response to Bach’s Partita No.3. She develops some lovely textures as the
Adagietto weaves ahead and a very fine theme emerges from the textures. The
Allegro scherzando quickly jumps around with widely spaced intervals, a most appealing little movement. The following Adagio cantabile slowly weaves a fine melody, all the while creating lovely sonorities and textures before the Allegro molto brings some wonderfully exotic harmonies as it increases in excitement and dynamics. The concluding Allegro giocoso skips forward, again with wide intervals and some lovely little details finely executed here.

Fenella Humphreys brings a totally committed, infectious performance.  

The recoding here is warmer without losing a sense of space, providing a vivid image.

Eugène Ysaÿe’s (1858-1931) Sonata for Solo Violin, Op.27, No. 2 has links to Bach, quoting from his third partita in the opening movement. However, in the opening Obsession - Prelude: poco vivace it is not only Ysaÿe’s play on Bach that can be heard but also the ancient plainchant Dies Irae. Humphreys brings a fine control and shaping of all the music’s varying tempi and dynamics with some fine double stopping and a lovely flourish to end. Malinconia - Poco lento draws some fine sonorities, this fine violinist finding Ysaÿe’s melancholy tug with fine precision allied to a fine emotional response.  

A pizzicato rendition of the plainchant Dies Irae opens Danse des ombres - Sarabande (Lento) before the music moves forward with some fine variations. This soloist brings a variety of fine textures and sonorities as the variations on the Dies Irae continue, leading to some rich textures in the coda. There is some especially fine playing in the Les Furies - Allegro furioso that takes off with terrific passion and command working through passages of different textures and timbres, all the while the plainchant theme appearing through.  

Fenella Humphreys brings this music alive with her fine technique and musicianship with a recording that has a similar warmth to that for the Suite No. 1.

Gordon Crosse’s (b.1937) Orkney Dreaming is a homage to both Bach and Orkney. The Moderato opens with long held chords before moving forward with a constantly shifting theme which is subjected to a variety of textures and effects. This violinist reveals some remarkably fine moments with varying tempi, little surges of energy and some lightening responses. Long held sonorous chords also open Fugue before developing in the freely moving textures of a fugue, culminating in an atmospheric coda. It is perhaps in the Andante that Bach is recalled more than anywhere else in this work with a slowly unwinding theme to which harmonies and textures are added. The vibrant Allegro moves forward with a terrific rhythmic theme, constantly varying and running into a Scottish style theme before a lovely little coda.

Fenella Humphreys brings so much to this unusual and attractive work.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s (1644-1704) Passacaglia from his Rosenkranz Sonata is a most lovely piece. Here Humphreys slowly allows Biber’s lovely invention to develop, setting a fine, flexible tempo developing some lovely textures and sonorities with minimal vibrato, bringing fine musicianship and depth to this fine piece.  

The recordings for the Crosse and Biber return to the rather bright sound that was heard in the Bach. 

Piers Hellawell (b.1956) wrote his Balcony Scenes for Fenella Humphreys in 2014. In four scenes, it explores the idea of counterpoint or dialogue. Fantasia I: Broad – unhurried opens with rich sonorities interspersed with a pizzicato note before moving ahead in hesitating passages. As the theme is developed there are a variety of textures and timbres, very sensitively and finely revealed here. Bicinium I draws some long, sonorous phrases interspersed by high, little twitterings before developing into stronger phrases as it progresses to a subdued coda.

Bicinium II: Lento - Prestissimo volando moves ahead quickly and confidently with a repeated motif which is subjected to variations. Humphreys is absolutely terrific here. Fantasia II: Ad lib – rubato brings some lovely broad sonorities before gently opening out, developing constantly shifting chords before speeding through a terrific passage to arrive at the coda.

A scintillating Bumblebees by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) concludes this disc with Fenella Humphreys developing some terrific double stopped lines as this little piece moves quickly to its conclusion.

Whether taken as a straightforward, yet varied recital or a demonstration of this artist’s formidable talent, one will gain immense pleasure from this disc.

Whilst more warmth would have been welcome in some of the recordings this should not put anyone off hearing these very fine performances. There are informative notes from Ivan Moody. 

I look forward to Volume 2 with great anticipation. 

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