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Vaughan Williams & Grieg: Violin Sonatas

Charlie Siem (violin), Itamar Golan (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2022
Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: March 2023
Total duration: 51 minutes 49 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo © Filippo Avandero.

The best part of a century lies between the premieres of Grieg's second violin sonata (1867) and Vaughan Williams's (1954), but both works represent their composers at their most inspired—Vaughan Williams in response to Frederick Grinke's championing of The lark ascending, and Grieg composing during his honeymoon.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams bridged the history of England’s sunset from Empire to Commonwealth. Musical revolution, two world wars, the New German School of Liszt and Wagner, Stockhausen, Boulez and the Darmstadt radicals framed his life. In the succession of major Anglo-Saxon composers, he commanded the high ground between Elgar and Britten, facing ‘the doubts and portents of a tragic age’ where his predecessor had ‘proudly’ summed up ‘the glories of the Victorian century’ (Bernard Shore). He has been called ‘the apotheosis of Englishness’, ‘the fountainhead of the … English national school’, a man ‘as English as Morley and Purcell’. In 1931, the year Constant Lambert staged Job at the ISCM Festival in Oxford, Aaron Copland, fresh from Brooklyn, jazz and Nadia Boulanger, arrogantly wrote him off as ‘the kind of local composer who stands for something great in the musical development of his own country but whose actual musical contribution cannot bear exportation … His is the music of a gentleman farmer, noble in inspiration but dull’. 15 years later, the critic Scott Goddard was to say: ‘There is no aspect of life foreign to him, none beyond the reach of his art; and that art, which is the most individual in the history of [British] music since Purcell, has reached a width of reference and a depth of comment never attained by musicians bred here … Nothing can be said conclusively about the workings of mind so protean and still magnificently active’. The ‘corpus of Vaughan Williams’s work will speak to generations of Englishmen of a great Englishman’s ranging thoughts, his love of the homely countryside, his piety, his inherited poetry, his adventurous mind and lofty ideals’ (Shore, 1949).

Vaughan William believed that music was to be heard, not so much read or spoken about. ‘In our imperfect existence what means have we of reaching out to that which is beyond the senses but through those very senses? Would Ulysses have been obliged to be lashed to the mast if the sirens instead of singing to him had shown him a printed score? When the trumpet sounding the charge rouses the soldier to frenzy, does anyone suggest that it would have just the same effect if he took a surreptitious glance at Military Sounds and Signals?’ (Music & Letters, April 1920). In his book National Music (published in 1934 from lectures two years previously) he argued that fundamentally all music was a matter of nationality, and therefore nationalistic. Ruling states had identities and dialects as individual and ‘narrowly’ circumscribed as those of their satellites. ‘National music is not necessarily folksong; on the other hand folk-song is, by nature, necessarily national’. Music, he asserted, was ‘the only means of artistic expression which is natural to everybody. Music is above all things the art of the common man … the art of the humble … Music cannot be treated like cigars or wine, as a mere commodity. It has its spiritual value as well. It shares in preserving the identity of soul of the individual and of the nation’. ‘The great men of music close periods; they do not inaugurate them,’ he wrote famously. ‘The pioneer work, the finding of new paths, is left to smaller men … I would define genius as the right man in the right place at the right time—we shall never know of the number of “mute and inglorious Miltons” who failed because the place and time were not ready for them. Was not Purcell a genius born before his time? Was not Sullivan a jewel in the wrong setting? … As long as composers persist in serving up at second-hand the externals of the music of other nations,’ he concluded, ‘they must not be surprised if audiences prefer the real Brahms, the real Wagner, the real Debussy, or the real Stravinsky to their pale reflections. What a composer has to do is to find out the real message he has to convey to the community and say it directly and without equivocation … if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls’.

While the Young Turks of New Manchester—Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth, John Ogdon—were acidifying the landscape of post-war British music, Vaughan Williams was veiling it in soft Albion twilight. Imagining places ‘where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me, and ghosts then keep their distance’ … capturing ‘the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise’ … wandering ‘lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills’. The last of his chamber works, the Violin Sonata (1952), dedicated to Frederick Grinke—who gave the first performance with Michael Mullinar in a half-hour BBC birthday broadcast, 12 October 1954 (by which time Vaughan Williams was back in London, living in Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park)—dates from between the Sinfonia Antartica and Eighth Symphony. ‘A minor’ avers the score, but in fact the key scheme follows a (late) Romantic progressive trajectory, from A minor (Fantasia) through D minor (Scherzo) to C major (Tema con variazioni), traversing widely divergent tonal fields in the process. Writing in Cobbett’s (1963), Colin Mason maintained the music reflected the composer’s ‘blunter style’. Disagreeing with Michael Kennedy who thought there was ‘too much unison writing for the two instruments, the chords are thick’, he considered the pianistic contribution ‘not ineffective’. Indeed. Challengingly, narratively, each demand and voicing, removed from Brahms, Ireland or Rachmaninov, communicate in orchestrally suggestive, contrapuntally linear ways at once nuanced and persuasive. Introducing the work in Radio Times (8 October 1954), Ernest Bradbury of The Yorkshire Post—referring to VW as a ‘folksong collector who—daydreams (if not always luxuriously)’—noted that Mullinar ‘helped’ with the piano part.

Two subjects permeate the opening Fantasia. The first, Allegro giusto, juxtaposes simple (3/4 cantabile song) and compound (9/8 dance) rhythms, the piano allocated the latter, the violin the former. The second, Largamente, preceded by a tutti punctuated violin cadenza, is a 4/4 chorale given to the piano. Both themes begin with the same initial notes of the minor scale (in A and D respectively), the first rising to the third degree (quasi Schubert Unfinished), the second to the fourth and higher. Returning to Tempo I, the violin and piano presentations of the first subject are varyingly exchanged and restored metrically, along with re-contoured/contracted elements of the second subject, in what is essentially a toughly directioned development section. A second violin cadenza leads into the tail episode, functioning as both reprise and coda, second (Lento) and first (Tempo I tranquillo) subjects alternating in that order.

The central Scherzo, Allegro furioso ma non troppo, is a horse-fair of displaced accents. Typically, VW resists movable Stravinskyian or Bartókian time-signatures. Re-wiring his 4/4 scaffolding, however, charts rampant turbulence. The opening theme for instance (minor-third geared, carried by piano against pizzicato/arco violin)—its pulse-challenging sixty-four quaver/nine-bar-within-eight schema baring tensed sinew and nerve-ends:

2+3+3 / 3+2+3 / 3+3+2 /
3+3 / 3+2+3 / 3+3 /
2+3 / 2+3+2 / 3+2+3

At this distance in time the Tema con Variazioni, ‘finale’ weighted, conjures a post-Sixth Symphony world somewhere between pebble beach Grimes and permafrost Shostakovich. With hands in unison octaves widely distanced, ppp una corda molto sostenuto, the theme (related to both subjects of the first movement, transmoded from minor the major) comes from the finale of a withdrawn early Piano Quintet in C minor completed in October 1903 (a year distinguished almost exclusively by vocal music). The terminal paragraphs, tranquility uppermost, return cyclically to the opening Fantasia, enshrining within a tempo rubato cadenza (so-called) remembering the carolling melismata of The Lark Ascending (a work for which Grinke was celebrated). ‘Till lost on his aerial rings/In light, and then the fancy sings’. Low violin C#, high piano A major triad, pianissimo, silence.

‘Edvard Grieg belonged to a race living in a remote and peculiar land, with rugged mountains and romantic valleys, and a climate varying from the fierce winter storms of the Atlantic to the bright summer nights when the sun is in the sky the whole night long. He was one with his people. When other nations abandon themselves to the joy of life they play a scherzo, a rondo […] Grieg played a Norwegian springar or a halling, as was the custom of the ancient inhabitants [and hardanger fiddlers] of Norway’ (Marius Moaritz Ulfrstad, Cobbett’s [1929]). A man of leonine visage but frail, small physique plagued since his teens by poor health, Grieg was born in Bergen, his Scottish great-grandfather, Alexander Greig, having arrived in Norway the previous century. In 1858, on the advice of the Norwegian violinist and nationalist Ole Bull, a relative through marriage, he went to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, graduating in 1862. Here he studied piano with the director, Moscheles no less, and, during his last year, composition with Reinecke, the latter, however, incurring his dissent. ‘I must admit,’ he told his biographer, Aimar Grønvold, ‘that I left Leipzig Conservatory just as stupid as I entered it. Naturally, I did learn something there, but my individuality was still a closed book to me.’ Embarking on a career as pianist and conductor, he married his cousin, the lyric soprano Nina Hagerup, in June 1867.

Neither the pre-Concerto First nor Second Violin Sonatas, admired by Liszt, are as familiar as the C minor Third, given early recorded stature by Kreisler and Rachmaninov. But formal niceties and side-steps are for the finding (the combination of slow movement and scherzo in the First, for example), and both can claim bright ‘gallery’ finales. Drones and hardingfeler, too, are rarely far away, imparting a folklored ‘mighty dreamland’ character. Dedicated to the composer-violinist Johann Svendsen, the epithalamic Second (premiered in Christiania, 16 November 1867)—‘more Norwegian even [than the First], for a Norway without tragedy is not a complete Norway’ (Gerhard Schjelderup, 1903)—was familiar among early players as Grieg’s ‘dance sonata’ (all three movements are in triple time), Ulfrstad drawing attention to its ‘genuine’ male-led, animato/tranquillo double-theme springar finale, ‘full of youthful enthusiasm, vigour and joy of life’. Framed by a bard-like introduction, Lento doloroso, and accelerating coda, three themes bind the first movement. Allegro vivace (offbeat accents); Tranquillo ed espress (minor); A tempo (clipped rhythms). The middle movement is an Allegretto in E minor, the subsequent dolce maggiore melody of which Grieg was to return to 20 years later in the Romanza of the Third Sonata. A ‘magnificent nature tone-poem’ Monrad-Johansen called it (1934).

Solveig’s Song (1875), Peer Gynt Act III, arranged Charlie Siem. Invitation, ballade, mazurka, adieu, the betrothal of minor and major. A forest in the remote north, summer, Solveig, fair and handsome, spinning.

It may not be till winter’s past,
And spring and summer—the whole long year;
But I know that you will come at last,
And I shall wait, for I promised you—
I shall wait till you come back to me;
If you’re waiting above [if in Heaven]
I shall meet you there!
(Ibsen, translated R Farquharson Sharp, London 1921)

Ateş Orga © 2023

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