York Bowen’s Second Viola Sonata Crowns Power and Crawford-Phillips’ Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Turnage, Bowen: Lawrence Power (viola), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 14.10.2016. (GPu)

Simon Crawford-Phillips © Urban Jörén

J.S.Bach – Gamba Sonata in G (BWV 1027)


York Bowen –  Viola Sonata No.2

Over the years I have had some unhappy experiences when an artist has come onto the stage at the beginning of a concert and announced “we have made some changes to the programme”. With malign inevitability, the work I was especially looking forward to hearing had disappeared and been replaced by something less interesting. So when Lawrence Power’s first words were “We’ve made a small change to the programme”, I was, to put it mildly, uneasy (not least because one of those ‘unhappy experiences” I spoke of earlier was at one of his recitals). But I need not have worried. The change was, indeed, quite ‘small’ and it was a genuinely interesting one.  The printed programme promised the three works I have listed above – and all three were played. The change was that it instead of playing the Bach and then the Turnage, Power and Crawford-Phillips chose to interleave the four movements of the Bach sonata with the five of Turnage’s Powerplay. For anyone who wasn’t familiar with this work by Turnage the decision must have seemed rather bizarre. But Powerplay, specifically written, (with its punning title) for these players, consists of movements all of which make some use of the kind of forms much favoured by baroque composers (including Bach), so the choice made a kind of sense and served to cast a degree of mutual illumination between the two works. However I think I would have preferred to hear each of the works played through uninterrupted by the other. Being a “bear of very little brain”, I found the interweaving of movements rather more distracting than satisfying. Power and Crawford-Phillips evidently found no such problems in the exercise, it must be said.

Their Bach was generally idiomatic, though the Andante made somewhat more use of rubato and vibrato than purists would have wished; but when a work written for viola da gamba and harpsichord is played on the viola and a modern Steinway, ‘authenticity’ seems a fairly irrelevant consideration. More important was the clarity of line and the beauty of tone that Power brought to the music. Powerplay was at its best in its ‘Sarabande’, music of unfussy, dignified grace (not a description, I suspect, often employed with reference to the music of Mark Anthony Turnage!). The work was commissioned specifically for these players, by De Doelan of Rotterdam and the Wigmore Hall, and was premiered in London in February 2015. This was, I presume, its Welsh premiere. It is a wonderful showcase for Power’s virtuosity, though it is no mere ‘display piece’; there is substantial musical intelligence here too.

Although I enjoyed both the Bach and the Turnage, it was York Bowen’s Second Viola Sonata (Opus 22) that was the major event of this recital. It is hardly surprising that Bowen should have understood so well the potential of the viola. As a pianist he worked frequently with the great viola player Lionel Tertis, getting to know the existing repertoire, such as it was, for the instrument and learning quite what the instrument could do when played by a real master. Indeed it was Tertis and Bowen who gave the premiere of the work, on February 26th 1906 at the Aeolian Hall in London. I find it hard to imagine that, despite the intimacy of their relationship with the music, Tertis and Bowen could have played the piece much better than Power and Crawford-Phillips do (I am thinking both of this concert performance and of their recording of the work on Hyperion CDA6765). This is a work which has, understandably, played a significant role in the revival of interest in Bowen’s music. (I first heard it live, some years ago, in a concert by graduate students at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, having sneaked out of an academic literary conference elsewhere in the city). It is, in some respects, very ‘English’ music, but not at all inhibited or limited by that Englishness. Indeed such echoes of other composers as one hears (for Bowen has a very independent mind) are primarily of Brahms.

Power and Crawford-Phillips (the subtlety and importance of the latter’s work should on no account be underestimated) have a clear sense of the structure of each of Bowen’s three movements. In the first movement the piano writing often seems to be dictating the directions in which things should move, and Crawford-Phillips took on this role subtly but decisively. Power’s playing had a full-blooded romantic fervour here.

In the second movement, excitement was largely replaced by inwardness and a degree of implied tragedy. The more agitated central section of the movement spoke more of anxiety than hope, and Power’s playing at the movement’s close was a thing of great beauty.

The third movement is more lighthearted and invites some quick-fire virtuosity from the violist, with some very high-pitched passage work and some quadruple-stopping, though there are fine legato passages too. Lawrence Power handled all this with attractive eloquence and had a winning way with Bowen’s melodies. Simon Crawford-Phillips brought some virtuosity of his own to Bowen’s often demanding writing for the piano (Bowen himself was, of course, a thoroughly accomplished concert pianist).

It is an odd phenomenon that Viola jokes are still so common (“What do you call someone who plays the viola? – A Violator”; “How do you prevent your violin from being stolen? – Keep it in a viola case”). Those of us without a prejudicial involvement in the matter – so many violas jokes seem to be grounded in the assumed superiority of violins and violinists – surely have no great difficulty in either the particular qualities of the viola (notably its mellow, dark and very human tone) or the brilliance of its greatest players. It is surely significant that both Beethoven and Mozart preferred to play the viola (rather than the violin) when part of a string ensemble, perhaps recognising its central role in a balanced string sound, whether in a quartet or a larger ensemble.

When a violist plays with the seemingly comfortable virtuosity of Lawrence Power, producing a range of lustrous tones, and considerable musical intelligence, surely the most prejudiced of violinist might see the need to think again!

Glyn Pursglove

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