Beatrice Harrison—one of four sisters who, thanks to their parents’ commitment and society connections, all became professional musicians—will forever be associated with the Delius Cello Sonata and the Elgar Cello Concerto, not to mention a quirky ‘musical rapport’ with the nightingales that sang in her garden! Her association with important British musicians in an era of considerable vigour and productivity in the early twentieth century places her at the heart of British music making at this time and ensures that she is remembered as one of the period’s most prominent cellists. Her gender, of course, added to the glamour and appeal of her musicianship—May Mukle had preceded her and Guilhermina Suggia was an equally powerful presence, but professional women cellists were distinctly in the minority at this time.
Harrison, whose teachers included Hugo Becker in Berlin, was one of few non-Germanic students of the rather enclosed Dresden pedagogic line that was crucial in the emancipation of the cello as a Romantic solo instrument. Certainly, her playing on record suggests the retention of some nineteenth-century traits: a tight, rather sparing vibrato in all of her recordings, and quite liberal use of the portamento which was rather more prevalent amongst cellists than violinists. Whereas some of May Harrison’s violin recordings appear a little weak and unfocussed, Beatrice’s cello playing is rich and vibrant, making her arguably the stronger player of the two sisters.
The 1928 recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto which Harrison made under the composer’s baton (she was his preferred soloist) is a compelling experience of historical importance. Like much of Elgar’s music the Concerto has often been a victim of over-sentimentalisation; this recording, however, reveals the composer’s preference for faster tempi, conveying a sense of line and melodic shape often lacking in subsequent performances. The sense of unfulfilled passion so important to Elgar’s music is well projected. Harrison’s spare, almost stark tone hints at strength and resolve, counterbalancing the more obvious Romantic connotations. Her technical command is masterly and, whilst the modern listener may find the entire recording a little rough-hewn, its sheer communication and intensity cannot fail to impress. The same might be said of her Brahms E minor Sonata (1926), accompanied by the exquisite pianistic colours of Gerald Moore, whilst the archivally-significant 1926 Delius Sonata recording shows once again a fine balance of shape and colour with overall direction in a work that all too often can sound disparate.
In 1920 Harrison recorded Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 (Sarabande) with George Henschel in his arrangement with piano accompaniment. This is modest in its artistic intentions but played cleanly and sensitively, whilst Henschel’s own Sicilienne represents the importance of such salon repertoire in the early twentieth century.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist