English Music Festival Ventures Westwards

21/09/2013

  Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells: Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Matthew Rickard (piano), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 20.9.2013  (RJ)

Bliss: Sonata for Piano and Violin
Vaughan Williams arr. Lambert: Concerto Accademico
Holst: Five Pieces for Violin and Piano (Lied ohne Worte, Maya, Greeting, A Spring Song, Valse-Étude)
Howells: Sonata in B minor for Violin and Piano (world premiere)

The EMF forsook its Oxfordshire base for the weekend and journeyed to the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire to feature three composers born in the county and another, Sir Arthur Bliss, who had strong connections with the Cheltenham Music Festival and has had a road named after him in the town.

Sir Arthur Bliss’s early Sonata for Piano and Violin has been performed before but was never actually published. One wonders if this was an oversight, for Rupert Marshall-Luck  and Matthew Rickard made a very convincing case for this one movement work consisting of six closely integrated themes. One special characteristic was the juxtaposition of rhythmic units of three and four which act as a unifying force, and there was considerable variety in this ten minute work ranging from quasi-devotional passages to intense turbulence which seemed to foreshadow the colour and drama of some of his later works.

In the 1920s neo-classicism was all the rage and Ralph Vaughan Williams was not immune to the trend, as shown in his Concerto in D minor for Violin and Strings (Concerto Accademico) which was tonight played in an arrangement by Constant Lambert. The first movement bore a striking resemblance to Stravinsky’s classical style with its spiky, dissonant rhythms, but gradually a more rhapsodic, Romantic element crept in. The Adagio seemed to be from the same stable as The Lark Ascending, while the lively presto finale with its cross rhythms and synchopation drew its inspiration from folk music rather than the classical style.

The Five Pieces by Cheltenham born composer Gustav Holst dating from the period 1902-1904 are very much salon pieces – and none the worse for that.  Edward Elgar, for instance, wrote works in this genre, such as Chanson du Matin, as a means of making money. These are well crafted, charming pieces but I could discern very few distinctive Holstian features in the music. It is good to know that Messrs.Marshall-Luck and Rickard have now recorded these pieces, most of them for the first time, though I note that the Cheltenham-based violinist Marie Hall made a recording of the Valse-Étude in 1924.

The fourth composer to feature in this recital was Herbert Howells whose Sonata in B minor for Violin and Piano composed 102 years ago and receiving its first public performance was the most substantial work of the evening. Howells was an articled pupil to Herbert Brewer, the organist at Gloucester Cathedral, but  was determined to become a composer rather than have a career as an organist. Friends encouraged him to enter a scholarship competition for the Royal College of Music, so he resigned his position at the Cathedral to devote a whole year to composing. This was a risk that paid off for he won the scholarship.

The programme book benefited from some excellent notes by Paul Spicer who appears to have edited Howells’ manuscript – not without difficulty, since some of the copying out was slapdash. It is clear that the composer was greatly influenced by Elgar, especially in the lyrical slow movement, which I felt was the most successful of the three. Both the outer movements begin with a slow piano introduction. As the first movement developed one sensed a bittersweet quality with which there were also strong declamatory flourishes. There is plenty of drama in the finale where the use of Elgarian triplets is pronounced, and the duo demonstrated both passion and tenderness in a fine performance. For an 18 year old this is in many respects a remarkable work showing great promise; it is something of a pity Howells did not return to it in later years to strip out the excess.

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 More details of the English Music Festival are obtainable from the website: www.englishmusicfestival.co.uk

 Roger Jones

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