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Rising-star violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen is joined by the eminent pianist-composer Huw Watkins in a diverse programme of works that were all influenced in different ways by the era in which they were composed. The works were conceived at four very different points in their composer’s lives—Debussy, at the end of his life, Respighi in the first flush of fame, Elgar, although not old, enjoying his last creative period, and Sibelius in his prime composing prolifically. These four contrasting works were all composed as the Great War drew to a close, but none of them specifically attempts to conjure up images of the conflict, nor act as any kind of programmatic memorial to its victims. Rather, these works are all conceived as absolute music, albeit, in the case of the Elgar and Debussy sonatas, imbued with a melancholy regret that may have been a reflection of those tragic four years.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) was already suffering with the cancer which prematurely ended his life, when he began to compose his Violin Sonata in G minor, L140. He began to sketch the work in 1916 and completed it the following year. It was to be his final composition and was in fact part of a projected cycle of six sonatas for various instruments, of which only three were written (the others being for Cello and the ravishing Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp).
Its three short movements provide an astonishing range of moods and emotions within a relatively short time span and, according to a typically self-deprecating remark by the composer, it represents ‘an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war’. Like Elgar, Debussy was profoundly affected by the war. In particular, he wished to assert a strong sense of nationalism in his music, that bordered on a definite anti-German feeling and even signed the score ‘Claude Debussy—musicien français’.
There is a profound air of melancholic nostalgia that imbues this music, and the whole work is intricately and subtly linked within its thematic scheme. There is also a definite Hungarian flavour to the writing, irrespective of Debussy’s aim to be resolutely French. In 1910, he had met a gypsy violinist in Budapest and been fascinated by his flamboyant style of playing. This may have subconsciously coloured the style and mood of parts of the sonata, especially the Finale.
Debussy composed this last movement first and it references material in the two preceding movements. The opening Allegro vivo is deeply felt with its typical theme of falling 3rds supported by ravishing harmony, while the middle movement Intermède: Fantasque et léger, seeks to dispel the sombre mood, being unusually bright and capricious.
While the finale (marked Très animé) undoubtedly returns to the earlier mood, it nevertheless builds to an ecstatic conclusion, which sounds a surprising and definite mood of optimism, in spite of Debussy’s own tragic circumstances. The premiere took place on May 5th 1917 with soloist Gaston Poulet accompanied by Debussy himself. It was to be his final public performance and he died on March 25th the following year, at the age of 58.
The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) was an accomplished violinist, violist and pianist, chiefly remembered nowadays for a group of brilliantly orchestrated tone poems that vividly describe the vistas of his native Italy, so it may surprise some that he also composed some exquisite chamber music. The Violin Sonata in B minor, P110 was written in 1917, just after his international fame had begun, with the acclaimed performances of the first of these aforementioned tone poems, The Fountains of Rome. It is actually his second sonata for the instrument; an earlier work in D minor was completed in 1897.
Respighi had a lyrical, melodic gift and wrote most effectively for the violin, as can be heard here. The sonata is a major work, in three impassioned movements. The free rhythms and constantly changing metre of the first movement, the ravishing, ever-shifting harmony of the second and the brilliant and unusual passacaglia that underpins the structure of the last movement, always makes this highly romantic music seem fresh, with many unexpected melodic and harmonic turns.
The opening is hauntingly beautiful, with intensely rhapsodic writing for the violin and this mood is sustained throughout the work. In the slow movement, the music becomes almost operatic in its lyrical outpouring. The piano writing is big-boned, frequently reminiscent of Brahms. In fact, the connection with the German master may extend to the form of the last movement. Around this time, Respighi had become interested in the music of the baroque period (his popular Ancient Airs and Dances was also written in 1917) which may have influenced his decision to use a passacaglia (a set of free variations on a repeated bass melody) for his finale, although I believe it was the last movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (perhaps the greatest use of this formal device in the romantic repertory) which inspired him. The sonata was first performed on March 3rd 1918 by Federico Sarti with the composer at the piano.
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) loved the violin. His ambition had originally been to become a violinist, but his compositional skill soon exceeded his instrumental abilities. Like Elgar, his hugely successful Violin Concerto has tended to draw attention from his other string works, of which there is a surprisingly substantial amount.
For financial expediency, Sibelius composed many short pieces for the instrument during the First World War (orchestras struggled, as musicians were called to the front). However, these inventive miniatures are sadly neglected nowadays.
The Five Pieces for violin and piano, Op 81 were composed between 1915 and 1918 and while published as a set, each can stand on its own. The music does not reflect the tragedy of war at any point and like similar occasional pieces written by Kreisler, each has an abundance of charm and melodic invention.
The Mazurka (written first, in 1915) is the most demanding technically, opening in a cadenza-like manner and replete with huge leaps in the melody, with much double stopping and other virtuoso effects. The Rondino dates from 1917 and is written in a quasi-Rococo style. The Valse (also 1917) is languorous and beguiling with a most inventive middle section. It has a similar flavour to Elgar’s Chanson du Matin.
Aubade (composed 1918—the title means ‘morning song’) has a Mozartian delicacy about it, with a lovely singing melody supported by the busy piano figuration. Finally, the Menuetto (also 1918) is by no means a pastiche of an 18th-century dance but a genuine attempt to evoke the classical period, its vigorous use of the trill providing a vibrant, masculine flavour.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) had actually begun to compose a violin sonata in 1887 but set it aside and never completed it. The Violin Sonata in E minor, Op 82 suffered no such problems and was written in the space of less than a month. It has been somewhat overshadowed by his Violin Concerto, and it is only recently that it has become a repertory staple. The sonata belongs to the group of late works that included the Cello Concerto and the String Quartet (both of which are incidentally, in the same key), and was completed on September 15th 1918.
The war had a profound effect on Elgar, rendering him almost silent, musically speaking. This can be felt in the music he composed as it came to an end. The Violin Sonata is cast in three striking movements. Its opening Allegro: risoluto presents a bold, virile, frequently restless theme and in the first four bars we find the kernel of everything that follows. A typically descending Elgarian motif gives way to a vigorous treatment, before the lyrical, touching, second subject appears. The restless mood returns in the development section and in the coda.
In contrast, the middle movement, Romance (marked Andante) which is the emotional heart of the work, has a beautiful, long-breathed melody that is strongly reminiscent of those found in both the Violin and Cello concerti. Like a soliloquy, the violin seems to improvise on the music. The sonata was written at ‘Brinkwells’, his country house in West Sussex, and Elgar’s wife noted that this Andante was inspired by the magic of the nearby Fittleworth woods.
In a letter, Elgar himself described it as a ‘fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section’. He went on: ‘The last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony …’ In fact, the final Allegro non troppo subtly recalls the opening movement and brings the work to a joyous and optimistic conclusion, albeit marked with a touching reference at the end, just before the coda, to the dolcissimo theme of the slow movement. This relates to the sonata’s dedicatee, Marie Joshua who died suddenly, the day before he completed it. Like so much of Elgar’s music, there is a hidden agenda. The sonata was first performed on August 21 1919 by W. H. Reed with the noted conductor Sir Landon Ronald at the piano.
Brendan Carroll © 2014
We meet these composers at widely different points in their lives, and they are all writing in different musical languages. Debussy, at the end of his life, Respighi in the first flush of fame. Elgar, although not old, enjoying his last creative period, Sibelius, in his prime, composing prolifically. Yet for me, there is an elusive and haunting quality which pervades each work, despite their wildly different moods and characters, and sound worlds. I hope you will enjoy inhabiting these worlds as much as I have loved exploring them.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen © 2014