Tuesday 23 October 2012

British Viola works wonderfully played by Louise Williams and David Owen Norris

In my ‘Celebrating British Music’ blogs (see links below) I covered the music of Sir John McEwen, Sir Arnold Bax, Elizabeth Maconchy, Alan Rawsthorne and Kenneth Leighton, five of the seven composers whose music is recorded on a new release from EM Records (The English Music Festival) www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk/emrecords.html

This new 2 CD set has works for viola and piano by McEwen, Bax, Maconchy, , Rawsthorne, and Leighton as well as Gordon Jacob and Robin Milford played by Louise Williams www.louiseviola.co.uk/index.php and David Owen Norris www.davidowennorris.com .

EMR CD007-008 (2CD)
Louise Williams was formerly with the Chilingirian Quartet and the Raphael Ensemble and is currently a member of the Frith Piano Quartet. She has also worked with the Nash Ensemble, the Takacs Quartet and the Lindsay Quartet. David Owen Norris is well known as an indefatigable supporter of British music as well as a fine pianist who has recorded much rare British repertoire.

Sir John McEwen (1868-1948) wrote his Sonata in A minor for Viola and Piano in 1941. This is a thoroughly engrossing work that holds the attention from its rich dark opening through dance like episodes, an exquisite andante to a brilliantly dashing finale with music that is shot through with a Scottish vein. Louise Williams brings a velvety tone to the richer passages and sparkling playing in the faster sections. In the third movement Allegretto in particular, David Owen Norris gives some beautifully intricate playing.

There is something about Sir Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) music that always seems to strike an emotional chord with me. His Sonata for Viola and Piano (1922) certainly does so in this fine performance from Williams and Norris. There is some fiendishly difficult writing for the viola brilliantly played by Williams and at other times an underlying haunted quality that is brought out beautifully. A somewhat demonic allegro middle movement is fabulously played by both artists whilst in the finale there are moments of extreme beauty from both the violist and pianist. There is some complex piano writing that Norris negotiates magnificently before the opening then returns to give a satisfying end to the work.

Sir John McEwen’s Improvisations provençales for Violin and Piano were written whilst staying in the South of France in 1937. Conjuring up a Mediterranean feel, these pieces make an entrancing set with opportunities for display for both the violinist and pianist. Not one of these six pieces is without beauty or interest especially as played by this duo.

McEwen was staying on another part of the French coast in 1913 when he wrote his Breath O’ June for Viola and Piano, one of 2 Poems for violin and piano for Lionel Tertis. This time it was the Atlantic coast that provided the inspiration for this slight but attractive work.

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) wrote her Sonata for Viola and Piano on 1938. It is a fairly uncompromising work with a propulsive first movement that places demands on both the violist and pianist. Even the middle movement lento, though slower, seems to perpetuate the feel of the first movement before the viola works its way to a more rhapsodic sounding section with the pianist attempting to maintain the fragmented rhythmic pulse. The presto finale is again in the mould of the opening allegro, providing cohesion for the whole work. There are some extremely difficult passages before the work ends for both the violist and pianist, showing what fine artists these two are,.

David Owen Norris, in his booklet notes, remarks on the formal perfection of Gordon Jacob’s (1895-1984) light but attractive Sonatina for Viola and Piano (1949). Most ordinary listeners will hear an attractive allegro, a melancholy andante expressivo and a lively allegro with a quiet sombre coda. It is probably the middle movement andante that will linger in the mind most of all.

The dissonance of the opening of Alan Rawsthorne’s (1905-1971) Sonata for Viola and Piano (1937) comes as something of a shock after the Jacob sonata. A dissonant molto allegro opening movement provides challenges for both performers. As if the first movement wasn’t challenge enough, the following scherzo is equally demanding with more superb playing from both Williams and Norris. There is a dark and strange adagio before the Rondo allegro that, whilst providing some attractive music, still has a degree of dissonance.

Some of the audience at the 1937 premiere must have wondered where the world was heading with such music. Now we can more easily enjoy this fascinating work played with tremendous flair.

Robin Milford (1903-1959) wrote his Four Pieces for Viola and Piano Op.42 in 1935, only two years before the first performance of the Rawsthorne, yet what a difference. These very English pieces have an Air  that is fresh and open, a gentle little Musette, a gently rocking Serenade and a spiky sounding Gavot . This short work has a beautiful simplicity that is very appealing. It’s also very beautifully played.

The concluding Fantasia on the Name Bach Op. 29 (1955) by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), from its sombre opening, builds into something more than a ‘mere’ fantasia might suggest. Leighton creates an ever evolving flow of material rising from the adagio, through an allegro, a Chorale lento to a fugue with a seamless flow of invention.

Both Louise Williams and David Owen Norris play wonderfully, coping with the often demanding music with tremendous virtuosity. The recording is exceptionally good and there are informative booklet notes. This is a lovely set of CDs. Any lover of British music should not miss this release.

See also:


Celebrating British Music Part 5 (Maconchy and Rawsthorne) http://theclassicalreviewer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/celebrating-british-music-part-5.html




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