About this Recording
8.572579 - Viola Recital: Jones, Matthew - CLARKE, R. / WALTON, W. / BRIDGE, F. / BAX, A. / BLISS, A. / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R. (English Music for Viola)

Clarke • Walton • Bridge • Bax • Bliss • Holland • Vaughan Williams


The first half of the twentieth century saw an extraordinary change in the perception of the viola and a corresponding increase in the number of composers writing for the instrument. At the forefront of this was Lionel Tertis, often referred to as ‘the first virtuoso British violist’, who pushed the limits of what the viola and violists were thought capable beyond all expectations. The works contained on the present disc were composed between 1901 and 1950 and give a flavour of the diversity of compositions for viola and piano emerging in England in this period.

‘Perhaps in the old days people used to think it wasn’t quite nice for a girl to compose!’ wrote Rebecca Clarke in a draft of a lecture on ‘The Woman Composer – Then and Now’ in 1945. Having been removed by her parents from the Royal Academy of Music at the age of seventeen, following a marriage proposal from her harmony teacher, she became the first female composition student of Sir Charles Stanford (teacher of Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bridge) at the Royal College of Music. Clarke was a violinist until Stanford suggested that she try the viola, launching a successful career as a soloist and chamber musician.

Considered one of her finest compositions, the Viola Sonata was written in 1919 for the Coolidge Competition for composition under the pseudonym ‘Anthony Trent’ (chosen because she liked the name ‘Anthony’ and saw the River Trent on a map). The work was narrowly beaten to the prize by Bloch’s Suite for Viola but the jury demanded to know the real identity of the composer, and Clarke soon became a ‘cause célèbre’ both in England and America. The outer movements of the Sonata pass through a huge array of stylistic influences (from Debussy to English folk-song) and moods (from impetuoso to calmato via agitato) in their ‘fantasy-like’ structure; the middle movement is a brief, delicate scherzo.

Clarke only composed one other work on the scale of the Viola Sonata, her 1921 Piano Trio. Asked in a BBC interview celebrating her ninetieth birthday why she had not continued to compose, she replied: ‘I can’t do it unless it’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep…if one allows too many other things to take over one is not liable to be able to do it…’ However, following the success of the Viola Sonata she was able, at last, to ditch the alter ego: ‘…when my music was beginning to be published, I killed Anthony Trent—officially and with no regrets—and I’ve never been bothered with him since!’

Sir William Walton’s Canzonetta and Scherzetto were composed in 1948 and 1950 respectively and dedicated to Vivien and Laurence Olivier, frequent visitors to the composer’s home on the Italian island of Ischia. The first of the pieces, here presented for the first time in their viola transcription, was based on a thirteenth-century troubadour song by Thibaut IV, King of Navarre, which the composer happened across whilst preparing the incidental music for the film Henry V. Whilst the viola melody is characterized by its lilting metre and grace notes, the piano writing echoes the strumming of a guitar in its harmonic support. Scherzetto (literally translated as ‘little joke’) is also thought to be inspired by the troubadour tradition and, like Canzonetta, makes frequent use of grace notes. The opening measures in 5/8 and an unexpected silence grab the listener’s attention before the movement settles into a fast 3/8. Walton makes use of pizzicato and harmonics to widen the palette of colours in this humorous miniature.

Although Frank Bridge was himself an extremely accomplished violist (most notably he was a member of the English String Quartet for many years), he wrote relatively little for the instrument. In addition to miniatures such as the Allegro appassionato, however, the three songs for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano and a Lament for two violas, the transcription, by Veronica Leigh Jacobs, of a number of short works for violin or cello has given violists the possibility of indulging in some of his most beautiful melodies. The four pieces recorded here were written separately between 1901 and 1910. They have appeared in print in different versions, ranging from solo piano to full orchestra, and display clearly his music’s melodic charm and elegiac warmth.

Sir Arnold Bax’s Legend was given its première, like much of his viola music, by Lionel Tertis, whom Bax had first encountered when studying at the Royal Academy of Music where Tertis was a member of the string faculty. The work was commissioned by the American chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and begins with a powerful, bass ostinato for the piano alone. The work appears to contain far more material than its duration suggests, moving in an instant from dreamlike to sinister and back, and appears to be permeated (though not as clearly as in many of his other works) by the Irish influence that was so dear to the composer’s heart.

Sir Arthur Bliss, a central figure in British music throughout his life, played the viola and once described it as ‘the most romantic of instruments; a veritable Byron in the orchestra…its whole rather restless and tragic personality makes it an ideal vehicle for romantic and oratorical expression’. Apart from his Viola Sonata, however, an undisputed masterpiece (the first performance of which featured William Walton as page-turner, coincidentally), his only work for the instrument is the charming Intermezzo which Watson Forbes transcribed from the middle movement of Bliss’s Piano Quartet (1915). Curiously, several sources refer to the transcription as dating from 1914, but it was not published until 1950.

Discovered after the composer’s death amongst some of his papers, little is known about Vaughan Williams’s Romance other than that it was probably intended for Lionel Tertis. Vaughan Williams’s association with Tertis resulted in two large scale works for viola and orchestra: Flos Campi and the Suite. Romance had to wait until 1962 for its première, given by Bernard Shore.

Despite enjoying considerable popularity with several of his compositions and a successful career writing music for the theatre, Theodore Samuel Holland is best remembered as a teacher of composition and harmony at the Royal Academy of Music and, like Bliss, for positions held in British musical establishments. His pupils included the pianist Ronald Smith and Iris du Pré, mother of Jacqueline. Holland himself had studied violin and composition at the Royal Academy and with Joachim in Berlin. His considerable output includes works in almost all classical forms—from concertos and symphonic works to cello quartets, songs and much solo piano music. By the mid-1930s, however, Holland’s music was infrequently performed and he appears never to have used his influence to promote his compositions. The Suite for Viola and Piano was written in 1938, a time when the reputation of the viola as a solo instrument was on a steep incline, largely thanks to Lionel Tertis and the many composers (including Bax, Vaughan Williams and Bliss) who had written for him. Holland uses the full range of the viola in all respects, as Tertis often encouraged composers to do, and the result is an appealing, beautifully crafted work which has remained unjustly neglected.

The tense opening of the Allegro vigoroso is reminiscent of the beginning of the Bliss Sonata, but subsides swiftly into one of the many lyrical duets between viola and the right hand of the piano. The passionate, haunting Romance exploits the richness of the lower range and tenderness of the higher notes of the instrument and, in total contrast, the finale combines jaunty, often jazzy outer sections with a mysterious central section.

© Matthew Jones

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