British Cello Sonatas

A key figure in the British musical renaissance, ETHEL SMYTH (1858-1944) was critically acclaimed for her music and for her writing during her lifetime. As a composer she is perhaps best known for her Mass in D of 1891, a concerto for violin, horn and orchestra (1927) and a series of operas, including The Wreckers (1902-04) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14). Her earliest compositions are on a smaller scale, however, and consist of songs, piano pieces and chamber music. Smyth’s Sonata in C minor for cello and piano was written in 1880. The idiomatic handling of the instruments, the impressive command of form and the fluency of the melodic lines make this early work the equal, at least, of her later chamber pieces such as the Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.7 (1887) and the String Quartet in E minor (1914). There is an unselfconscious freshness to the writing and an excitement too, as the young composer explores the properties of her freshly honed, authentic musical voice.

The creative conviction of the composer ELIZABETH MACONCHY (1907-1994), expressed here so eloquently, reflects her clarity of thought and strength of purpose.  She contributed a select number of works with a major role for cello and these scores reveal a natural flair for string writing. Maconchy’s Divertimento for cello and piano (1941-43) was written for cellist William Pleeth and pianist Margaret Good, who gave the first broadcast performance on the BBC’s Latin American Service in March 1943.  The piece is typical of the composer’s distinctive musical style in which direct lyricism, rhythmic drive and harmonic ambiguities are mobilised in the service of an engaging narrative.

The compositions of ELISABETH LUTYENS (1906-1983) are characterised by textural economy and organisational rigour.  The cello plays a significant part in many of her pieces for chamber forces.  Lutyens wrote her Nine Bagatelles for cello and piano, Op.10, in 1942.  The language of the Nine Bagatelles is indicative of a composer deeply connected to the music of her own era. A wide knowledge of the music of Stravinsky and serial techniques has not resulted in slavish copying, but has helped Lutyens to forge an individual voice.  

Although REBECCA CLARKE (1886-1979) wrote most of her music in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was not until the final decades of that century that her stature as a leading British composer was secured. Clarke achieved fame as a composer with her Viola Sonata (1919)6 and Piano Trio (1921), both runners up in competitions that were part of the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Festival of Chamber Music.  This festival was sponsored by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who also commissioned Clarke’s longest and most intricate score, the Rhapsody for cello and piano (1923).

In stock
Catalogue Number

Lionel Handy and Jennifer Hughes’ last Lyrita disc programmed the cello sonatas of Ireland and Bax and added Delius’ Third Violin Sonata in its cellistic guise. Their latest disc steps further back in time to Ethel Smyth’s 1880 sonata and further forward to take in Lutyens and Maconchy, whose works were written at almost the same time during the War.

Smyth’s Sonata in C minor is in her best echt-Brahmsian style, with a strong lyric cantilever and personalisation in the form of a ländler as an Allegretto. To add more zest there’s a delightful folkloric drone in the trio of this movement. The Andante offers a series of variations with plenty of variety, play of faster and slower sections and a sure sense of direction. If the finale is rather School of Leipzig, that’s no bad thing necessarily. Smyth collectors have always been in Troubadisc’s debt for its pioneering releases devoted to Smyth’s music but this new slightly more expansive performance is very much to be preferred. Handy and Hughes are articulate, expressive and playful exponents.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Divertimento was written for the duo of William Pleeth and Margaret Good between 1941-43. The five movements are tremendously witty and off-beat with a Latin dance to start – insinuating and sexy – and a Russian mood in the next movement oscillating between lyricism and expressive heart. The Clock is the title of the central panel and that is the trigger for pizzicato tick-tocking; a droll miniature that strikes nine and then, like a music box, is rewound. The centre of the Divertimento is the fourth part, called Vigil, the longest movement and a beautifully vibrant and prayerful piece. A dapper Masquerade brings to a close yet another in Maconchy’s portfolio of characterful, approachable, and truly delightful works.

This brings us to Elisabeth Lutyens. Her Nine Bagatelles of 1942 offers compressed, sparse and aphoristic music-making. The Poco allegro is as catchy as it gets here, and I have to say I found it all rather windswept. Rebecca Clarke’s Rhapsody was written in 1923, the same year Bax and Ireland wrote their Cello Sonatas. Here Lyrita is in competition with itself as Raphael Wallfisch and John York have already recorded this on SRCD.354 (
review) in an all-Clarke disc. Once again Lyrita has very helpfully separately tracked the four distinct sections. This performance is lean and intense, its architecture adroitly charted, the interplay between the instruments finely judged. Clarke’s dissonances are respected and the music’s fugitive folkloric episodes wisely presented. There’s very little difference in conception between the two competing Lyrita recordings, though Wallfisch is probably the more expansive tonalist.

You’ll have noticed that this disc is an all-female British affair. It’s also finely documented and recorded. The performances are malleable, sympathetic and stylistically assured. I look forward to the next Handy-Hughes release; they are offering things that the Watkins brothers don’t on their Chandos British sonatas series.  
Jonathan Woolf Musicweb International

© 2010-2020 Wyastone. All Rights Reserved.