Recorded during lockdown, this disc with the marvellous Sarah-Jane Bradley was a revelation. Six works never recorded before by six relatively unknown composers but everyone of them excellent in their own way. It is available at Dutton records https://www.duttonvocalion.co.uk/proddetail.php?prod=CDLX7390 as an SADC hybrid multi channel disc. Favourably reviewed on BBC Radio 3 and on Music Web International below......
English music for viola and piano on disc often focuses on familiar names: Bax, Clarke, Bowen, Bliss, Bridge, Vaughan Williams and maybe Grainger. Once in a while the repertoire expands to include McEwen, Maconchy, Rawsthorne and some others. Dutton has gone for something different: relatively unfamiliar or near-unknown names in a tight compositional chronology of 1939-57. All are claimed as world premiere recordings – though Dutton obviously didn’t know about one previous recording, of which more later.
All the suites, sonatas, sonatinas or sonata-like pieces are compact – at 19 minutes in length Wilfrid Mellers’ sonata is by some way the most expansive – and occupy the same kind of aesthetic, some more conventionally than others. William Lawarne Harris studied with Howells and taught music in schools. His 1952 Suite is a crisp and evocative folkloric piece that won the Lionel Tertis prize for a viola suite. The finale is virile and confident, but the central movement is the most evocative, and is called The Death of Procris, named after the painting by Piero di Cosimo that Harris must have seen in the National Gallery in London. In point of fact Harris titled it in French, perhaps on the grounds that, as in the case of food, using French confers an exalted status on things.
Alan Richardson’s brief Intrada was, like the Harris Suite, dedicated to Watson Forbes, one of Britain’s finest violists of the era. It’s the equivalent of one of Kreisler’s little jests of Baroquerie and a delight. This is the piece that has been recorded before, by the dedicatee for Decca in 1941 and he was considerably faster than the excellent Sarah-Jane Bradley. Thomas Dunhill is probably the best known of the composers in this disc and his Triptych was written for solo viola and orchestra but what we hear is the viola and piano reduction as the larger scaled work seems to be lost. Its opening movement is sweetly melancholic, there’s a romantically oriented scherzo and a genial and charming finale.
Better known as a writer and academic, Wilfrid Mellers found the time to compose as well, at least in his earlier days as his Sonata dates from 1949. His piece is stylistically the most advanced, not least harmonically. Its emotional landscape veers from melancholy to overtly pessimistic, replete with mournful recollections, but there’s a buoyant tunefulness as well in the central movement. The finale, it’s true, reverts to the threnodic but it’s a quietly impressive work, beautifully played by Bradley and John Lenehan and the pianist certainly brings out the colour and glint in the keyboard writing. Christopher Edmunds’ Piano Sonata has recently been recorded on EM Records (EMR CD070-71) and here now is his 1957 sonata dedicated to Bernard Shore, erstwhile principal violist of Boult’s BBC Symphony and a fine soloist. Edmunds is good at long-breathed lyricism though I can’t pretend that it’s a particularly distinctive work.
More personal and warmly expressive is Norman Fulton’s Sonata da camera. Fulton worked for the BBC, after which he taught at the Royal Academy of Music. He wrote three symphonies. Sleeve note writer Michael Ponder – himself a fine violist - suggests that the last performance of the work was the one he gave with the composer at the piano back in 1969. It’s a welcome rediscovery; lyric, charming, whimsical, unpretentious, genial, and finely laid out for both instruments. The final work is the Sonatina of Thomas Pitfield, a number of whose works have been recorded. Again, the salient features here are unselfconscious generosity and charm, with an admixture of folklike moments.
Traditional in style and form, this selection of works has been beautifully performed and equally well recorded in St George’s Headstone, Harrow. Ponder’s notes tell you all you need to know.