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5.0 out of 5 stars English Viola Music, 19 Jan. 2013
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This review is from: Viola Sonatas, Idylls & Bacchanals (Audio CD)
"Idylls & Bacchanales" is a 2-CD set of British viola sonatas and other pieces written by composers including McEwen, Bax, Maconchy, Jacob, Rawsthorne, Milford and Leighton, thereby ensuring that the listener is exposed to a wide range of styles.

John McEwen's Sonata of 1941 is a late work which is clearly influenced by the musical forms of his native Scotland. The first movement is in the nature of a reel, while the final one is dominated by a frantic folk-fiddling. The romantic fingerprint of McEwen's mature output is evident throughout.

"Improvisations Provencales" is a slightly earlier work by McEwen, the only piece on these discs to require a violin instead of the viola. The piece is a series of delicate miniatures, the melodies of which no doubt originated in the region named. The final McEwen piece, "Breath o' June" (1913) also began life in France, but is more English in tone, as if it might have originated in some Edwardian drawing room.

The Bax Sonata (1922) is reckoned to be one of his masterpieces, and was certainly written when the composer was at the height of his powers. The substantial first movement is quintessential Baxian romanticism, lushly scored. The second movement is full of drive and energy, with spectral elements, while the finale rises to a powerful climax, resolving the tensions between the previous movements.

Altogether more modernist, for its time (1938), is Elizabeth Maconchy's Viola Sonata. In the first movement the viola weaves a sinuous melodic line over running piano quavers, giving the music a restless quality. The expressive lento moderato seems to search in lonely isolation, almost neglecting the questioning piano accompaniment at times. The presto finale is full of energy.

The modernist streak also dominates the Rawsthorne Viola Sonata (1930s). The scherzo, in particular, is a "tour de force" for both instruments - a kind of "moto perpetuo". After three uncompromising movements, the finale provides some light relief - dessert after the main course, perhaps.

The Gordon Jacob Sonatina (1949) can best be described as neo-classical, and is somewhat more demanding for the listener than many of his lighter occasional pieces. The first movement is a vigorous allegro, the second a touching andante, while the finale marches briskly towards a somewhat unexpectedly subdued conclusion.

The quiet, yet sunny English landscape of Milford's Four Pieces for Viola and Piano, written in 1935, bears no trace of the darkness that clouded the composer's later years, and led to his eventual suicide in 1959. The music here shows Milford for what he primarily was - an exquisite miniaturist who worked in pastels rather than oils.

The longest piece on these discs, Leighton's "Fantasia on the Name Bach", is clearly the product of an "enfant terrible" of English music in the heady 1950s. It is without doubt a technically and intellectually accomplished piece designed to prove a point, but makes for demanding listening.

This double disc demonstrates the rich pickings of the twentieth century English viola repertoire, and adds to the several albums already available. Louise Williams (viola) and David Owen Norris (piano) make an excellent case for the attractiveness and quality of this music.
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