English Viola Sonatas
The viola repertoire grew hugely during the twentieth century, owing in no small part to the pioneering efforts of the great soloist Lionel Tertis. Many other players were also active, however, in bringing the instrument to the fore, and this disc presents (in some cases for the first time) a diverse selection of outstanding works.
Gordon Jacob (1895–1984) composed a vast amount of music throughout his long life. Educated at Dulwich College and then serving during the First World War in the army, Jacob, like so many other gifted composers of the period studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Following a brief spell away from the College, he returned in 1926 to become a professor of composition for the next forty years. His pupil Malcolm Arnold described Jacob’s teaching as ‘marvellous. He would let you do free work and would criticize it very thoroughly but in a way that encouraged you’. Jacob was regarded as an authority on
orchestration, and, like Arnold, was an accomplished writer of film scores. He declared a special affection for the viola, and completed a sizeable repertoire for the instrument, not least his two concertos, written more than fifty years apart. His Viola Sonata was completed in 1978 and first performed by its dedicatees John White and Michael Freyhan on 16 February 1980. Cast in four movements, the arresting material at its opening is recalled at the start of the finale,
leading to a virtuoso moto perpetuo. The slow movement is particularly touching, perhaps suggesting a lost world of pastoral serenity, in stark contrast to the robust and energetic first movement and the playful intermezzo that follows. Like so much of Jacob’s music, this sonata is a skilfully crafted
work which achieves a wide range in its relatively short playing time. He once wrote: “I think the question of communication is important, because one never wants to write down to an audience, but at the same time I personally feel repelled by the intellectual snobbery of some progressive artists…the day that melody is discarded altogether, you may as well pack up music…”
Like Gordon Jacob, John Ireland (1879–1962) studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and went on to enjoy a long career as a teacher at the institution. His earliest musical influences were Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák, and he gained much from studying the works of Ravel, early Stravinsky and Bartók. However, the writings of Arthur Machen, whose interest in magic and the ritual of ancient times which Ireland also found so alluring, were crucial to the composer in finding his own musical world. He once declared: ‘How can critics even begin to understand my music, if they have never read Machen?’ From around 1900 onwards, when Ireland visited Jersey with the choir of Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, he spent many summers on the Channel Islands, revelling in the islands’ rich pagan associations, reinforcing this sphere of his imagination. Together with, as one critic put it, ‘a nostalgia traceable to a rather joyless childhood’ and a Baxian interest in the ‘hidden life of nature’ and its elemental forces, Ireland’s distinctive
musical personality was firmly established. The present Sonata, finished in December 1923 for cello and piano, was published in the viola version by Lionel Tertis in 1941. Ireland and Tertis premièred this at a National Gallery concert on 17 October 1941 and went on to give the first broadcast performance from the BBC’s wartime studios in Bedford on 14 December 1942. Ireland had agreed to write a work for viola and orchestra in 1942 for a tour by Tertis to Portugal sponsored by the British Council. Sadly this never materialised and so, together with this version of the Cello Sonata, violists must be content with the Tertis transcription of Ireland’s Second Violin Sonata, and his two versions of Holy Boy, one accompanied by piano, one for solo viola. I
am indebted to John White for access to a copy of Tertis’s own performing part in the preparation of this recording.
Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006) wrote that all his music was biographical, and he is quoted as saying that he ‘had always been and always would be an A.N.A.R.C.H.I.S.T.’ The Viola Sonata of 1947 is a highly original work, quirky and with abrupt changes of mood. In common with his First String Quartet of 1949, there are atmospheres (particularly in the outer movements) which recall the ‘night music’ of Bartók, a composer whose music Arnold studied avidly during the 1940s. However, the central movement is more conventionally ‘filmy’, predominantly relaxed, yet sometimes
with an undertone of darker uncertainty and threat. 1947 was the year in which Arnold wrote the first of his 115 film and documentary scores (perhaps his most famous score being that for The Bridge on the River Kwai for which he won an Oscar), a remarkable achievement alongside his extensive output for almost every genre. The first performance of this sonata was given by the eminent violist Frederick Riddle, principal viola of the London Philharmonic Orchestra during
the 1940s, while Arnold was its principal trumpet.
As for Malcolm Arnold, the 1940s were a pivotal period for Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989). In 1945 the critic A. L. Bacharach observed that Berkeley’s music was ‘distinguished by keen perception, flawless logic and an irreproachable technique’. Berkeley’s studies for five years in Paris in the late 1920s with Nadia Boulanger, undertaken on Ravel’s recommendation, had been vital in forming the composer’s acute sense of clarity and precision. In the mid- 1930s, his friend Britten, younger by ten years, recognised these qualities, together with Berkeley’s personal feeling for harmony; yet instinctively he knew there was more individuality to be realised. He told Berkeley: ‘If you want to do that, do it: don’t think all the time about whether Nadia Boulanger would approve.’ Following Berkeley’s successes in the late 1930s and early 1940s with works such as his Serenade for Strings, First Symphony and the Second String Quartet, his unique voice was confidently secured. The Scottish violist Watson Forbes, together with pianist Denise Lassimonne gave the first performance of Berkeley’s Viola Sonata on 3 May 1946, following its completion a year earlier. Composed two years after the String Trio, in the première of which Forbes had participated in 1944, the work is cast in three movements. A conversational sonata-form first movement is followed by a slow movement which, after a musing first section, builds in restlessness and intensity to a shattering climax. The music that follows, though apparently calmer, has a sense of uncertainty, perhaps reflecting the world-mood of the time. The finale is at times hearty, brilliant and witty, always refined, and delivers an emphatic close.
Delius (1862–1934) wrote his Cello Sonata in 1916. It is dedicated to Beatrice Harrison who, accompanied by Hamilton Harty, gave the first performance at London’s Wigmore Hall on 31 October 1918. The sonata is written in one continuous movement, but three sections are identified in the score: Allegro, ma non troppo, Lento, molto tranquillo and Tempo 1. The soloist plays almost continuously from beginning to end, sustaining a soaring lyrical line through and above the mainly chordal accompaniment. In the programme book of the 1962 Bradford Centenary Delius Festival, the composer’s amanuensis Eric Fenby wrote: ‘Though regarded primarily as a harmonist, Delius’s flights of melodic prose, notably in the Cello Sonata, aspire to a long-spanned freedom of phrase rare in British music.’ Arthur Hutchings described the work as ‘a masterpiece almost flawless in its perfection’. Following in the tradition of Lionel Tertis’s arrangements of a number of Delius’s violin and cello works for viola (which were approved by the composer), Martin Outram has recently transcribed the Cello Sonata. He and Julian Rolton gave the first public performance at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge on 10 May 2009. This is the first recording.
The Delius Society