Fine Advocacy for Unjustly Neglected Works by Three Female Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Venus and the Violin – Lili Boulanger, Debussy, Clarke, Beach, Beethoven: Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Huw Watkins (piano), Kings Place, London, 27.1.2018. (CS)

Tamsin Waley-Cohen (c) Patrick Allen
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (c) Patrick Allen

Lili BoulangerDeux Morceaux
Debussy – Violin Sonata in G minor L148
Rebecca Clarke – Violin Sonata
Amy Beach – Three Pieces Op. 40
Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.10 in G Op.96

The ‘unwrapping of Venus’ continued at Kings Place in this London Chamber Music Society recital by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist Huw Watkins, in which they presented three works by marginalised female composers with the sort of interpretative insight and refined musicianship that these seldom-heard compositions deserve.

Music composed during the early years of the twentieth century was the focus of the programme which began with the tentative delicacy of Lili Boulanger’s ‘Nocturne’, the first of the Deux Morceaux (1911-14).  The sparse opening expanded with impressionistic richness, ever and refined, while the following ‘Cortège’ sparkled with colour and energy.

Boulanger’s two pieces might be seen as a microcosm of Debussy’s 1917 Violin Sonata, with its wistfully fragile opening and ensuing wit and verve.  Waley-Cohen and Watkins began the Allegro vivo tenderly, gradually raising the temperature as they pushed towards the exuberant outburst of playful dancing.  There was a dreaminess in the central episode, Waley-Cohen’s G-string theme searching huskily as the piano sparkled, and the duo evoked a wonderful sense of release in the coda and brusque final cadence.  The Intermède was elegant and not too fey, Waley-Cohen using her strong, focused tone to give shape to the violin’s wisps and fragments.  Both players demonstrated discipline and technical assurance in the racing staccato repetitions, and Watkins retained a light touch during the jazzy chromaticisms and sways of the central section.  At the close, the violin’s traceries had the delicacy of lace.  Perhaps a little more exuberance and, in the jazzy episodes, smokiness, might have made the final Allegro even more exciting, but this was a reading in which the ‘classical’ spirit of the music was communicated with control and conviction.

I had not previously heard Rebecca Clarke’s Violin Sonata (1908) but Waley-Cohen and Watkins were excellent advocates for a work which has many moments of beauty, and they certainly made me want to hear the sonata’s Grieg-like songfulness again.  In the Allegro comodo, though, it was perhaps Brahms who came to mind in the expansive breadth of the second theme; there was a wealth of contrasting ideas, intricately arranged and developed, in this movement.  Waley-Cohen employed a full vibrato at the start of the Andante quasi Allegro, tenderly warming the violin’s slow ascent, a rise which was later echoed in the piano’s arching accompaniment – always lightly declaimed by Watkins – to the violin’s rhapsodic double-stops.  The strongly defined character of this movement was convincingly projected, and there was a similar focus and clarity of design in the final Allegro which began with taut pizzicatos, blossomed with lyrical freedom and built intelligently towards the strong cadential motifs of the coda.

The English-born Clarke settled in Manhattan in 1944, the year that Amy Beach died, and it was the latter’s Three Pieces Op.40 that opened the second half of the recital.  Waley-Cohen and Watkins played ‘La Captive’ with warmth and a compelling sweep, the ‘Berceuse’ was gentle but captivating, while the concluding ‘Mazurka’ danced freely.  The relaxed poise of Beach’s miniatures was persuasively presented by the duo.

The recital closed with Beethoven’s last violin sonata, in which Waley-Cohen’s firm tone and finely etched phrasing fused with Watkins’ clarity of line and texture to form a wonderfully communicative expressive medium.  This is a sonata that I know well, as both a performer and listener, yet I was struck afresh by the intimacy of the dialogues – which were played with almost Haydn-esque grace – into which Waley-Cohen and Watkins entered: the close of the first movement was particularly striking in this regard, as were the concluding episodes of the Finale.

It was a pity that the pastoral calm and delicacy of the opening of the Allegro moderato was marred by bronchial contributions from the audience, especially as the players, with effortless skill, created a wonderfully fluid flow through the sonata-defining trill motif and subsequent running scales.  The rhythmic cheerfulness and buoyancy of the dotted second subject was uplifting, and a spirit of freedom and joy infused the whole movement.  Watkins managed to convey both a hymn-like gravity and the gentleness of a lullaby in his beautifully shaped declaration of the theme of the Adagio espressivo, the extended melismatic melodies of which unfolded persuasively and with song-like clarity.  Waley-Cohen’s immaculately sustained elongated lines were supported by searching harmonic excursions in the piano and the overall effect was deeply spiritual and sincere.

The elision into the Scherzo was skilfully effected, especially in the light of the preceding profundity and stillness.  Here, despite the minor key and disconcerting off-beat accents, brightness of tone and varied colour swept aside the Adagio’s intensity; the running lines of the Trio were articulated elegantly and with lyricism, and the question-and-answer patterns in the piano were poised and urbane.  The duo presented a spacious statement of the theme of the final Poco allegretto and the ongoing metamorphosis of the ensuing variations was fluid and cogent, as contrasting moods and roles were established with unquestionable ease and logic.  Waley-Cohen’s strong, focused tone was captivating, as was the conversational elegance that the players achieved, reminiscent at times of a Schubert lied.

The was a superb recital, justly lauded by the Kings Place audience.  My only misgiving was the players’ decision to end their recital with Beethoven’s final sonata for ‘piano and violin’, of which Carl Flesch wrote, ‘the connoisseur regards Op.96, as the most perfected work of the whole series’, and in which Joseph Szigeti found ‘an intimacy of dialogue we have not yet encountered, an understatement in conveying the message’.  For, despite this ‘intimacy’, the scale, sublimity and refinement of the sonata, and Beethoven’s masterful articulation of a duo aesthetic, risked somewhat overshadowing the preceding works.

However, through their own commitment and assured musicianship Waley-Cohen and Watkins made it clear that the works by Clarke, Beach and Boulanger need to have no ‘case’ made for them; they speak eloquently for themselves.  And, despite my slight hesitation about the structure of the programme, I’m certainly glad to have enjoyed Waley-Cohen’s and Watkin’s performance of Beethoven’s sonata; it was an impressive and heartening exhibition of musical companionship.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment