Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, April 2011

An ex-pupil now a professional violist said, on seeing this CD on my stereo, “That’s a brave disc!”. In some ways it is; it is also very refreshing. I used to instil—or at least attempt to—in my pupils when I taught at girls’ schools that if they didn’t play music by women then who would? Well, Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman along with the ever-enterprising Naxos are doing just that. This disc is a fine testimony to their efforts following on from their successful foray into Cyril Scott on Naxos 8.572290.

The first work and the longest is by that doyen of feminism in music Dame Ethel Smyth. But forgetting her sex is this A minor Sonata any good? I must admit to knowing it already through a version by Nicoline Kraamwinkel and Julian Rolton—members of the Chagall Trio on Meridian CDE84286 (with Smyth’s Piano Trio in D minor and Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 5). This new version is more than its equal although almost four minutes longer. It’s an early work and shows the influence of Brahms—particularly in the sonata-form opening Allegro. Apparently Brahms met Smyth and found her quite alarming. Also one might detect a touch of Dvoƙák in the Scherzo second movement. There’s some trace of Schumann in the following Romanza and sometimes Grieg. It’s in the strong, vibrant and dramatic finale that Smyth’s voice begins to emerge. Perhaps it was this movement that, according to Caroline Waight’s useful booklet essay, Joachim found ‘overwrought and far-fetched”. It is apt for such a Germanic work that it was first performed in Leipzig. In truth it’s difficult to think of another British violin sonata of the period, which is as fine as this, despite the fact that there are moments of note-spinning. I can’t help but wonder why it has hardly ever been taken up. At almost half an hour, it is, I suppose, quite a commitment for the performers and for the promoters to put on a fairly obscure sonata which will take up most of a half of a recital. Yet this recording surely proves their misgivings wrong.

No doubt you have attempted the car game ‘name six great Belgians’. Did you consider the composer Henryk Wieniawski’s daughter Irène Regina who was born in Brussels. That city saw this terrific Sonata in D minor first performed. She married one Sir Aubrey Dean Paul in 1901 which is how she comes, someone tenuously, to be called a British composer. She published under the name of ‘Poldowski’. When listening to this three movement work I at first heard Rachmaninov. Then, as it went on its passionate way, I found myself increasingly excited by the music. I started to hear, especially in the finale, traces of César Franck, not surpassingly and of Ernest Chausson. They are there to hear in the intense chromaticisms and wild and almost violent piano part. For me this work is the find of the year so far; certainly the best work on this disc. The first movement is a deliciously ‘fey’ Andante languido and the middle movement is a tripartite Scherzo with a romantic middle section. The performers stretch their sinews to make this piece to come life and succeed whole-heartedly.

I’m writing this review just a few weeks before what will be, the centenary on 6 April 2011 of the birth of Phyllis Tate. Listening to her original and fascinating Triptych I find myself wondering if I will have the chance to hear anything else by her this Spring whether from a live performance or from the BBC. There should, most certainly, be other opportunities. She was famously critical and not prolific but this work offers us mystery and a probing harmony in the first movement, a mercurial Scherzo in the second and a formally complex finale marked Soliloquy—Lento sostenuto. With the latter’s changes of mood and textures, the ear never tires and time passes quickly. This is altogether a good introduction, and is passionately played. Tate’s music is well worth searching out. Sadly she is a composer few of whose pieces are available in the catalogue.

The unpublished Three Preludes of Elizabeth Maconchy are in her fairly usual dissonant and quite uncompromisingly unromantic manner. Some listeners may be reminded of her 9th and 10th Quartets from broadly the same period. The first Prelude is marked Tempo libero senza mesura and is intense and dissonant. The second has a winding fugal subject subjected to just enough treatment. The third is marked Con allegrezza and is sinewy but full of energy. It’s a useful addition to the repertoire and contributes to our understanding of this composer.

For some reason I seem not to have come across Ethel Barns. It seems incredible really as her music was played by all of the leading figures of her day including Joachim. She and her husband set up a concert series I’d vaguely heard of, the Barnes-Phillips Chamber concerts. Her La Chasse is in the virtuoso encore category, the sort of piece very popular in its day. It is brilliantly handled and brings this very generously filled CD to a rousing conclusion.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, March 2011

According to Caroline Waight, Joseph Joachim declined to play (Dame) Ethel Smyth’s Violin Sonata, considering it “unnatural.” But as Clare Howick (playing a 1721 Stradivari) and Sophia Rahman prove, the work, written in the 1880s (according to the notes), far from being the thorny affair that early reviews cited in the notes suggest, offers in its first movement an imposing but ingratiating combination of thunder and repose. Howick possesses an interpretive personality equal to these expressive demands, producing a thick sound with a strong, steely core, while generating sound and fury in Smyth’s powerful surges. It may be that the early critics looked for something more—a sort of delicacy—that might, on the other hand, now make the sonata seem merely a drawing-room curiosity rather than the imaginative, strong-minded musical utterance it appears to be. Smyth constructed the brief Scherzo, akin in a way to that of Brahms’s for the FAE Sonata, from short rhythmic motives, though the middle section offers some respite; Howick’s and Rahman’s terse energy brings the movement to an effective if abrupt ending. The Romanze lasts almost as long as the opening movement (the sonata as a whole, no mere bauble, occupies almost half an hour). Listeners may note in this movement that, despite its lyricism and the playfulness of its middle section, in which Howick hardly relaxes her energetic approach, it makes the case for Smyth’s greater success in constructing dramatic plots than in spinning out ingratiating melodies. The finale blends Brahmsian autumnal feel with rhythmic vitality and, again in this commanding performance, declamatory power.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s brief Three Preludes from 1970 display a very different side of Howick’s musical personality, as she threads her way through the vigorous first movement, the reflective second, and the bustling last one—in all three of which the duo renders the spiky dissonances with sharp definition enhanced by their dynamic subtlety.

The Violin Sonata by Irène Regina Wieniawska (the daughter of the violin virtuoso Henri Wieniawski; she adopted the pseudonym of Poldowski), from the early 1910s, returns to the energy of Smyth’s sonata, but realized in darker emotional hues and in moodier, longer-breathed melodies. Howick and Rahman play the opening Andante languido with a probing suggestivity that will hardly prepare the listener for the whirlwind energy with which she tackles the ensuing Scherzo—no joke, even an Olympian one, this time. And the movement settles down into rich reflection, filtered through Howick’s particularly ingratiating tonal suavity. As if the movements had not exhibited sufficient ferocity, Wieniawska marked the finale (the longest of the three movements) Presto con fuoco, suggesting a manner of expression clearly congenial to the duo. But that movement, as well, also projects the opening one’s languid opulence after the tempestuous beginning. Howick’s thick, rich tone in these sections suggests Oistrakh-like butterfat, although perhaps a bit more congealed.

Phyllis Tate’s Triptych, from 1954, consists of three movements: a Prelude, a Scherzo, and a Soliloquy, all in a sort of extended tonality that stretches to accommodate spiky dissonances within its bounds—and in the first movement certainly exhibits, in the duo’s energetic yet suggestive performance, a great deal of fresh energy. Howick and Rahman play the Scherzo’s fragments with the aggressiveness and panache of two flamboyant knife-throwers. The dissonant cantabile piano solo that opens the Soliloquy introduces a sort of in-kind commentary by the violin, in which Howick expresses herself in the upper registers with perhaps the most attractive tonal purity she achieves in the entire program. In this movement, the harmonies seem to meander farther from their moorings, though the textures and rhythmic structure of the melodies sound comparatively conventional. Her reading of the movement’s ending blends delicacy, sensitivity, and yearning. Coming almost as an encore at the end of the program, Ethel Barns’s miniature, La Chasse, allows Howick a moment of unabashed virtuosity in a genre popular in the 18th century, imitated in the 20th by Fritz Kreisler, but no more ably than by Barns (no one will need to read the notes to discover that Barns herself played the instrument well).

Since there’s no longer any reason to suppose that works written by women would be in any significant way different from those written by men, these will hardly (any longer) flout established expectations. Recommended most strongly to collectors of this nevertheless still specialized repertoire and to those who have come to admire Howick’s championship, ardent and insightful, of British composers in general.

Elaine Fine
American Record Guide, March 2011

…impressive and serious work…beautiful, clever, and odd…simply spectacular.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Lee Passarella
Audiophile Audition, January 2011

This very generously-filled CD offers up the music of composers whose collective careers spanned more than a hundred years. So we have two late-Romantic sonatas, two suites from the late twentieth century, and for added variety, a flashy little novelty piece à la Fritz Kreisler—quite a mix despite the one-size-fits-all album title. Of the five composers represented, you may have run across Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy before and possibly even Phyllis Tate. If you know the work of Irène Wieniawska or Ethel Barns, then good for you; they’re new to me, and the former is something of a find.
Neither of the two sonatas on the disc adds up to a fully satisfying musical experience though they both have real strengths. Curiously, while Smyth’s sonata starts like a house afire only to flag somewhat toward the close, Wieniawska’s is strongest at the finish. Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, bastion of musical conservatism, with Carl Reinecke, However, she seems to have acquired more contemporary musical tastes along the way; her Violin Sonata of 1887 sounds Brahmsian; at least the passionate Allegro moderato first movement does. This is easily the best of the four, the Scherzo second movement a bit lightweight after such a portentous opening, while the slow movement has the bland prettiness of a Venetian boat song by Mendelssohn, though the middle section has the flavor of folk music, provenance uncertain. The last movement manages to reclaim some of the grandness of the opening but still doesn’t match in quality that strong first movement.

Irène Wieniawska (1879–1932), who published under the pseudonym Poldowski, was the daughter of Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawaski. His arch-Romantic violin concerti speak with a middle-European accent; however, the daughter studied in Brussels and in Paris with Vincent d’Indy, Her Violin Sonata of 1912 sounds decidedly French—Fauré comes to mind. The sonata starts with an uneventful movement marked Andante languido, portraying lonely Augusts spent in Paris maybe. The fiery Scherzo and leonine Finale are quite fine, especially the latter, but this kind of “end-loading” results in a work that seems a bit unbalanced. By the way, how did Belgian-born Wieniawska come to join the ranks of British women composers?—through marriage to Sir Aubrey Dean Paul, descendant of the First Duke of Marlborough.

Of the two works dating from more recent times, Maconchy’s series of brief preludes from 1970 is the more distinguished; two angular jittery movements frame a spare, rather haunting Andantino quieto in which the two instruments weave contrapuntal daisy chains of melody. Tate’s Triptych (1954) starts with an edgy arresting Prelude that’s a hard act to follow: the Scherzo and Soliloquy don’t fulfill the promise of this opening, the lengthy Soliloquy especially seeming to outlast Tate’s inspiration.

Ethel Barns’ La Chasse (1928) serves as a frothy little encore, though the tempo is more befitting a stately dance than a spirited hunt. But its series of double-stops, glissandos, trills, and harmonics gives Clare Howick the perfect opportunity to show off her considerable technical flare. In fact, the sparkling performance by both musicians is the best thing about this disc. Howick and Sophia Rahman seem to be enjoying themselves and clearly believe in this music, uneven though it may be. I’ll return to the Maconchy preludes and the two sonatas and will again savor the performances, I’m sure. That’s less than a ringing endorsement, I know, but that’s about as much enthusiasm as I can muster.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, December 2010

An enterprising issue of music less often heard, but qualified by the title Women composers. I have said it before and I shall say it again, why do we have to advertise this point? Elizabeth Lutyens was once at a reception for the announcement of the forthcoming year’s Proms season and someone mentioned that two (or however many) works being played that year were by women composers. Lutyens, and if you knew Liz this will come as no surprise to you, said, in a loud voice, “yes, and (here she quoted a number) are by homosexual composers, you won’t mention that!” Of course she is right. What does it matter what the sex, or sexual orientation, of the composer is? And what’s more, if you were to listen to these fine pieces you’d never know the sex of the composer. So, ultimately, what does it matter?

Take Maconchy’s Three Preludes. Here is strong, argumentative music, finely wrought, purposeful in intent, and with a stark beauty. Maconchy is known for her Quartets and her string writing is the best of her. This piece, alone, is worth the price of the disk. Ethel Smyth’s Sonata is a big-boned, early, work, Brahmsian, to be sure, but with an emerging individual voice. Whilst this work doesn’t have the character, or the drive, of the Concerto for Horn and Violin, it cannot be ignored, for there is much to be admired here.

Irène Regina Wieniawska was the daughter of the great virtuoso Wieniawski and she published her work under the name Poldowski. On marrying Sir Aubrey Dean Paul she became Lady Irène Dean Paul and a British national, hence her inclusion here. Her Violin Sonata is a piece of romantic writing, not as strong as the Smyth but with sturdy tunes and a solid grasp of form. That said, it outstays its welcome. One wonders why this was included when there are many superior works for violin and piano by British women composers—such as Elizabeth Lutyens’s superb Scroll For Li-Ho (1967) or the Sonata by Grace Williams.

If you only know Phyllis Tate’s music from the Suite – London Fields or the Sonata for clarinet and cello, this Triptych will come as a shock. On first hearing, it appears to be quite austere, but as one gets to know it the music reveals its secrets. I was especially pleased to read in the notes that the work, “consists of three movements”. Who could have guessed it? What we need now is a new recording of her Nocturne for four voices, string quartet, double bass, bass clarinet, and celesta. How about that, Naxos?

Ethel Barns’ La Chasse is a marvellous piece of whimsy with which to end a stimulating and enjoyable recital. This is a most worthwhile disk, containing music which should be heard. These works are nicely juxtaposed, in very fine performances that evince total commitment. The sound is excellent and the notes good. This isn’t just for those of us who are passionate about British music, it’s for everyone interested in good music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Though the British music establishment paid lip-service to the cause of women composers, only a few are allowed to surface into national recognition. That Ethyl Smyth became one of that select group came as much from her militancy in the suffragette movement as from the ready acceptance of her music. Educated in Germany, she gained grudging acceptance for her opera, The Wreckers, which was a benchmark for a new generation of English opera. By contrast the Violin Sonata of 1887 is an emotionally charged flowering of the Romantic era in the Germanic tradition. From technical aspects it is a well constructed four movement score, the two instruments having passages of prominence. Irene Wieniawska dated from the next generation. Born in Belgium, the daughter of the famous violinist and composer, Henryk Wieniawski, she married into British aristocracy and settled in the UK, composing under the name Poldowski. The perfectly balanced three-movement sonata of 1912 is a lovely work, falling easily on the ear, and also uses both instruments in equal measure. Into the 20th century, where Elizabeth Maconchy captured the attention of an establishment besotted with everything linked to the Second Viennese School: she obliged with progressive sounds, the Three Preludes—short pieces dating from 1970—having a degree of peppery harmonies. Born four years later, Phyllis Tate, was a self-deprecating composer who destroyed much of her music. Tryptych, from 1954, is in three contrasting movements, though only the final Soliloquy is of substantial length. A tonal score of its time, one would hope it may be a long-term survivor. Ethyl Barns, a brilliant young violinist, was born in 1874. The sparkling and brief, La Chasse, published in 1928 being an ‘encore’ worthy of Sarasate. Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman are very sympathetic and stylish advocates.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group