Ireland, Delius & Bax: British Cello Sonatas

JOHN IRELAND The Cello Sonata in G minor was written in 1923 and premiered the following year on 4 April by the cellist Beatrice Harrison with pianist Evlyn Howard-Jones at the Aeolian Hall, London. The composer himself performed the Sonata many times as pianist with several cellists including Antoni Sala, who pronounced it ‘the best cello sonata of modern times’, and recorded it with Ireland on the Columbia label in October 1928.

FREDERICK DELIUS His four violin and piano sonatas were written between 1892 and 1930 and so chart comprehensively his creative development. Violin Sonata No.3 forms a part of the remarkable Indian summer of composition made possible by the blind and paralysed composer’s collaboration with Eric Fenby (1906-97). Lionel Handy arranged the Sonata for cello and piano in 2012 and on 23 November of that year he gave the first public performance of his transcription with Nigel Clayton as pianist at a concert held in The Warehouse, London to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Delius’s birth.

ARNOLD BAX is widely regarded as an orchestral composer. However, he also wrote a significant quantity of chamber music. One of his most impressive works for the instrument, the Cello Sonata in E flat was written in 1923 at a time when his popularity and standing among British composers was at its height. Completed on 7 November of that year, the Sonata was premiered on 26 February 1924 at the Wigmore Hall with Harriet Cohen accompanying Beatrice Harrison, to whom the score was originally dedicated.



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The cellist Lionel Handy has more than a passing interest in twentieth century British Music. He has performed the concertos of Finzi, Bax, Walton and Delius, and through his work with the London Sinfonietta has rubbed shoulders with such eminent composers as Tippett and Birtwistle. Here, in partnership with pianist Jennifer Hughes, he turns his attention to three British cello sonatas.

John Ireland's G minor Sonata dates from 1923 and was premiered the following year by cellist Beatrice Harrison and pianist Evlyn Howard-Jones at the Aeolian Hall in London. The composer, himself, made a record of it for Columbia in 1928 with cellist Antoni Sala, who declared it 'the best cello sonata of modern times'. The Sonata is set in three movements, and the sombre four-note motif which ushers in the opening movement provides the basic building block upon which much of the work is constructed. The general tenor of the movement is darkly laden, wistful and pensive. Yet, there are moments of dramatic tension. Handy and Hughes’ skilfully-managed building up of the climax with striking potency. The exuberant finale is trenchant and acerbic, and the players scale its rugged terrain with rhythmic acuity.

Lionel Handy plays his own arrangement of Delius' Violin Sonata No. 3 which he made in 2012 and premiered in November of that year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. The Sonata is melodically bountiful, with its second movement whimsical and quirky, offering some contrast to the lyrical outpourings of the outer movements. The players are sensitive to every nuance and inflection of Delius' idiosyncratic writing, subtly shading the rich harmonic textures. Rubato is judiciously applied and works well.

The Bax Sonata is on a much grander scale than the other two works, in terms of length, emotional scope and vision. Like the Ireland it dates from 1923, a time when Bax was basking in some popularity. The first movement is tempestuous and rhapsodic, but does have its calmer moments. I'm very taken with the slow movement. The opening uses material from his symphonic work Spring Fire. It evokes the tree branches dripping with dew as day dawns, and the unleashing of earthy fragrances. The cello plays a sombre lament over Hughes' exquisite diaphanous accompaniment. The gritty arpeggiated chords that usher in the energetic finale are superbly negotiated. The players invest the movement with plenty of vigour, verve and rhythmic drive. The 'big tune' is eloquently shaped and ardently sculpted.

This thoughtfully curated programme is all the more successful for the utter commitment and seductive playing of Handy and Hughes. This is music which deserves a wider currency, and these performances are both convincing and rich in musical insights. The recorded sound and balance are first rate, and Paul Conway's fulsome annotations are, as always, beyond reproach. Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb-International

"This excellent new CD from Lyrita opens with John Ireland’s cello sonata; it is one of my favourite contributions to the genre. The mood of the music is typically reflective and the resulting work “is pervaded with the brooding mystery of the deep past”. Listeners have identified a strong sense of ‘place’ in this music, most especially the aura of the landscape around Chanctonbury Hill and the West Sussex Downs. Lionel Handy (cello), and Jennifer Hughes (piano) give a splendid performance here, with an especial magic created in the gorgeous slow movement. The knack of a successful reading of this Sonata is an understanding of the musical self-referencing between movements, and the creation of the timeless ‘pastoral’ in the slow movement. It must break the listeners heart, especially if they have been to Chanctonbury.

Arnold Bax’s Cello Sonata is another of my favourite works in this genre. The opening movement is full of energy and musical adventure. On the other hand, Paul Conway, in the exceptional liner notes, reminds the listener that the “start of the haunted slow movement is a transcription of the opening of Spring Fire, an orchestral evocation of the forest before dawn”. This in turn was inspired by Swinburne’s ‘Atalanta in Corydon’. Bax wrote that this passage suggested ‘the uncertain and pensive hour immediately before daybreak in the woodland.’ Another allusion to Spring Fire in the Cello Sonata is a quotation from the 4th movement, ‘Woodland Love’. This is associated with Swinburne’s line “And time remembered is grief forgotten”.

The finale is wild and almost demonic in places. However, the second subject is calmer and the work ends with a brief epilogue which seems to bring peace to an otherwise troubled world. Finally, I feel that Bax’s usual topographical references which include
Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland and England are not relevant here. In fact, there is something of a warm, passionate Mediterranean feel to much of this music.

This is an important and thoroughly enjoyable release from Lyrita. I found all three works to be played with great creativity and imagination. The recording quality is as expected from Lyrita. The liner notes by Paul Conway are outstanding and present new slants on these works, most especially the Bax.

An essential purchase for all cello music enthusiasts as well as advocates for the three composers represented." John France, MusicWeb-International

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