English Violin Sonatas in Dorchester Abbey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delius, Howells, Milford, Holst, Blackwood, Ireland: Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Peter Cartwright (piano).  Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, 27.5.2023. (CS)

Peter Cartwright and Rupert Marshall-Luck

Delius – Sonata No.3 for violin and piano
Howells – Sonata No.3 for violin and piano in E minor, Op.38
Milford – Rhapsody in A minor
Holst – Five pieces for violin and piano
Blackford Tango for solo violin and piano
Ireland – Sonata No.2 for violin and piano in A minor

It’s hard to think of anywhere nicer than Dorchester Abbey, with the spring sunshine streaming through the stained-glass windows, to enjoy a morning recital of music for violin and piano, comprising works by English composers, largely written during the first half of the twentieth century.  Rupert Marshall-Luck and Peter Cartwright opened the first full day of the sixteenth English Music Festival, in Dorchester-on-Thames, with a programme which began with infrequently performed works by Delius and Howells, included two world premieres, and concluding with John Ireland’s highly acclaimed Second Violin Sonata in A Minor.

The first movement of Frederick Delius’s Sonata No.3 (1930) begins delicately, quietly seeking out its colours and warmth, gradually brightening and strengthening.  Marshall-Luck and Cartwright traced this arc expressively, sensitive to Delius’s sonorities, the soft tone of the violin’s G-string enrichening as the melody rose, Marshall-Luck’s E-string line lyrical and strong.  The piano’s triplet motif gave the Andante scherzando a lovely lilt, and the duo structured the alternations between this songful section and the more reflective Meno mosso episodes persuasively.  In the latter, Cartwright’s low left-hand chords were gently placed, characteristic of his thoughtful, supportive playing throughout the recital.  The elegiac quality of the Lento, the violin melody unfolding freely above lightly spreading chords, gave way to a fervent Con moto, the soaring violin lines finally fading by way of a luminous harmonic.

Delius may have professed a dislike for the music of the Classical era but, as in this Sonata, he often made discerning use of classical forms.  Herbert Howells adopted a different approach to form in his Third Violin Sonata (1923), the structure of which results from the organic growth and juxtaposition of various motif and themes.   Here, the melodic richness of the opening was driven by the dynamism of the piano’s bass line, sudden powerful bursts of energy rising then quelled.  And, as Marshall-Luck confidently ascended through the noble melody, his relaxed left hand ensuring a glistening tone and sure intonation, Cartwright sparkled nimbly.  There was a lovely fluidity about the duo’s shaping of this movement.  The pizzicati of the second movement were strong and rhythmic, played with impressive clarity and bite, while the piano’s cascades tumbled headily.  Perhaps there might have been a little more such ‘bite’ to the rapid motifs in the final movement, to create greater tension, but the ending, as earlier motifs were reprised, was aptly spacious.

Robin Milford’s Rhapsody in A Minor was originally composed during the 1930s, for solo violin and string orchestra, but Milford returned to it the end of his life and a score was published bearing his last opus number, Op.113.  There is no evidence that the work was ever performed, though.  In January this year a version for violin and piano, in the composer’s own hand, was discovered, and it received its world premiere here.  It’s an engaging and thought-provoking work, quite turbulent in its frequent changes of mood, alternating a Finzi-esque lyricism with passages of rhythmic fervour, energised interplay between the piano and violin followed by tenderness and quietude.  Marshall-Luck and Cartwright certainly had the work’s measure, and the technical assurance to negotiate its challenges, both practical and interpretative.  Further challenges were thrown up by Richard Blackford’s Tango for solo violin and piano (2022), also receiving its premiere performance, but the duo relished the work’s exuberance, colours and vivacious flourishes.

Gustav Holst’s unassumingly titled Five pieces for violin and piano (1902-04) proved more than simply decorative trifles, and were given an elegant reading by Marshall-Luck and Cartwright.  The opening ‘Lied ohne worte’ was sumptuously Romantic, the broad melody propelled by buoyant piano syncopations.  After the flowing currents of ‘Maya’, ‘Greeting’ garnered surging, impassioned strength.  ‘A Spring Song’ offered calm but did not lack intensity.  The concluding ‘Valse-étude’, the only one of the pieces to be performed in Holst’s lifetime – was sprightly and skittish, Marshall-Luck’s staccatos dancing airily but with warmth.

The recital close with John Ireland’s Violin Sonata No.2, which was written during WWI and evokes its shadows, grief and anger.  Bolstered by some powerful piano playing from Cartwright, Marshall-Luck found quite a gutsy sound in the Allegro though the duo did not neglect the music’s lyricism.  They knew when to let the phrases breathe, how to ‘turn the corners’.  There were moments of deep expressiveness, as when the pianissimo violin climbed the G string, anchored by the piano’s low, dark pedal.  Though the textures are dense, there was clarity throughout.  At the start of the Poco lento quasi adagio Marshall-Luck imbued his piano melody with intensity, then allowed the line to relax and open out.  Interplay between the two instruments conjured thoughtful arguments, but the overwhelming mood was one of restfulness.  The final movement, In tempo moderato – Con brio is complex and the duo relished its variety and restlessness.

This was a generous programme, performed by Marshall-Luck and Cartwright with evident affection for the music and a desire to share their commitment to this repertoire.  They deserved the very warm reception that their sincere and accomplished performance received.

Claire Seymour

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