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ClassicsOnline Home » Viola Recital: Magyar, Eniko - BLISS, A. / DELIUS, F. / BRIDGE, F. (The English Viola)
The viola, with its plangent tone, subtle sonority and lyrical qualities, is often overshadowed by its more brilliant-sounding sibling, the violin. An accomplished
violist himself, Frank Bridge wrote little solo music for this instrument; only the Pensiero and Allegro appassionato were published in his lifetime, the other works on this disc being the composer’s arrangements of some of his violin pieces. Similarly, Delius’s Third Violin Sonata is heard here in an effective arrangement by the celebrated violist Lionel Tertis, the dedicatee of Bliss’s expressive Viola Sonata.
By Malcolm Hayes
BBC Music Magazine
By Gerald Fenech
Music & Vision
By Andrew Achenbach
ENGLISH MUSIC FOR VIOLA
Sir Arthur Bliss (1891–1975): Viola Sonata
Frederick Delius (1862–1934): Violin Sonata No. 3 (arr. Tertis)
Frank Bridge (1879–1941): Pieces for Viola and Piano
Arthur Bliss, who came from a prosperous middle class Anglo-American family, was sufficiently well-off not to need a regular salary and thus was free to follow his musical inclinations where they took him. He joined up on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a conflict in which his brother Kennard was killed, and after the war he repudiated his earlier work and became a champion of Stravinsky and the avant garde. Well connected in the musical world he promoted concerts as well as composing. With short pieces such as Rout, Madam Noy, Conversations, Melée Fantasque, the Rhapsody (a vocalise for two singers) and a Storm for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, then thought daring and new, he was thumbing his nose at the established order. We now find them charming. With works such as A Colour Symphony, the Oboe and Clarinet Quintets, a choral ‘symphony’ Morning Heroes, the film music for Things to Come and a succession of successful ballets starting in 1937 with Checkmate he had established a secure position as a leading composer.
Bliss found himself in New York for the première of his Piano Concerto at the outbreak of the Second World War, but accepted an invitation to return to London and join
the BBC Music Department, rising to be Director of Music. He always responded to the championship and artistry of a specific instrumentalist and in his Viola Sonata, written in 1933, he wrote for the celebrated player Lionel Tertis, who edited the viola part. Bliss dedicated it to his soloist: “In admiration – To Lionel Tertis”.
The first movement is remarkably lyrical in style, and despite a characteristic restlessness and nervous character, it abounds in broad, sweeping and expressive phrases, though no extended tune as such emerges. Hubert Foss wrote of it (The Daily Telegraph), ‘there is logical development but there is no second subject proper. There are a number of characteristic phrases in the first movement, out of which the composer distils a kind of essential rhythm that sums them all up…Arthur Bliss has been progressing towards a new kind of classicism for some time.’ But despite the fast, energetic episodes, the music ends elegiacally with the plangent tone of the viola. The sombre lyricism of the Andante, the most lightweight but at the same time the longest movement, almost takes its cue from the close of the opening movement.
After an opening pizzicato introduction, it finds its perfect expression in the elegiac tone of the viola, music written very much to demonstrate Tertis’s strengths. As the viola
rests, the climax comes on the piano before the viola’s sombre brooding resumes and, rising up the instrument’s register, sings eloquently.
The exuberant physical vigour of the Furiant scherzo finale comes from being written in the curious time signature of 6/16, with an effect something between a tarantella and a very fast jig. At the end of the scherzo there is a pause and the music moves straight into the Coda, printed in the score as a separate movement but in effect the epilogue of the whole work. Almost immediately the soloist has a cadenza-like passage before reviewing the ideas of the first movement and revisiting the sombre mood of the Andante. The newly-composed sonata was first performed at a BBC Chamber Concert on 3 November 1933, when Lionel Tertis was accompanied by no less a pianist than Solomon.
Bradford-born, of well-off parents who were immigrants from Germany, Delius’s musical development was cosmopolitan, drawing equally from Norway, Florida, Germany and France, but little from the British music of his time. Returning to Bradford from America, after an early sojourn growing oranges at Solana Grove, Florida, Delius finally persuaded his unsympathetic father to finance him as a student at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he arrived in 1886 and remained for two years. Here he formed a circle of Norwegian musical friends and in
December 1887 met Grieg. That Christmas, Delius, Sinding and Halvorsen spent their Christmas with the Griegs, and Edward and Nina Grieg saw in the New Year with Delius. The two composers were respectively 25 and 44.
Delius’s first successes as a composer were in Germany. However his enduring audience was to be in Britain, and dates from the first performance of his Piano Concerto in London in 1907. His reputation as a British composer grew, particularly during and after the First World War, and he quickly came to be considered one of the leading names of his generation of English composers. Paradoxically, however, Delius lived in France for almost all his maturity as a composer, with an interruption during the war, when he twice came to England and had several London addresses; for some time he lived in Watford. His wife Jelka’s house and garden at Grez-sur-Loing, south of Fontainebleau (and only 64km from Paris), with its tranquil river, colours so much of his music that it is tempting to hear in the lyrical flow of his instrumental sonatas echoes of the peaceful time he spent there.
During his Paris years Delius had contracted syphilis and by the middle twenties the disease had progressed to the point when he was almost completely paralysed and totally blind, and lived in a wheelchair. The arrival of the young Eric Fenby in 1928 offering to act as Delius’s amanuensis gave him the means to dictate his last works. The Third Sonata was dictated to Fenby during the very wet, dark winter of 1929-30. ‘Heavy rains had flooded the river’ remembered Fenby ‘till the whole landscape was awash and it was scarcely light. By the second week in February the music was flowing and flow was the operative word with Delius.’
It was finished by Easter and dated March 1930 in the hand of Eric Fenby and published in 1931. The violinist May Harrison was summoned to play it to Delius to Fenby’s piano accompaniment. May Harrison had only recently recorded Delius’s First Violin Sonata with the composer Arnold Bax at the piano, and Bax agreed to play at the first performance of the Sonata which took place at the Wigmore Hall on 6 November 1930. They repeated it on 15 January 1931. Later Harrison and Bax also broadcast it. Soon Tertis appeared at Grez and played it to Delius on the viola and his version, adapted and edited for viola appeared in 1932.
The opening movement, while simply marked ‘slow’ might equally have been marked ‘flowing’. This movement is simply presented—the soaring viola line inserting articulating patterns of semi-quavers reflected from the piano. This is soon followed by a second idea first heard on the piano, and then, the time changing to a contrasted
6/4, a rich viola tune accompanied by chords. The viola sings rhapsodically on these ideas and eventually the opening music returns for a glowing closing outburst.
The middle movement is of the simplest, in a straightforward ternary form, the outer sections a slow dance, the singing middle section presenting a folk-inflected melody with a ‘Scotch-snap’ in the rhythm, underpinned by the piano’s constantly changing harmonies.
The slow piano introduction to the last movement—largely slow music—and the quietly soaring viola line underline how much of a musical farewell this is—sad
and valedictory. Gradually Delius builds up a passionate climax, the viola singing strongly. The viola moves into a higher register for an eloquently passionate episode, to a faster running accompaniment, before gradually fading into the purple dusk with the opening theme. Much more than the Second Sonata this is surely Delius’s consummate musical farewell, given added resonance by the plangent tone of the viola..
For three decades after his death Frank Bridge was only remembered as the composer of some songs and piano teaching pieces and as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. During this time one celebrated musician actually wrote to Britten asking him whether some Bridge manuscripts he had ‘were of any value’ (rather implying he did not think they were). Our assessment of the stature of Frank Bridge has changed dramatically since then thanks to the activities of the Frank Bridge Trust (now the Frank Bridge Bequest). The Trust has promoted recordings
and publication of all his music, and Bridge’s assessment as a leading composer of his time has gradually grown, the revolution perhaps initiated by Britten’s performances of
the orchestral works Enter Spring and the suite The Sea.
Bridge is perhaps an early example of a composer who built a portfolio freelance career, his income not only dependent on teaching, but as a pianist, viola player (both in orchestras and leading chamber ensembles), conductor and composer. Early on, the music which publishers would readily accept were drawing-room pieces for piano and also for violin, cello and for chamber groups, trios and string quartets. While Tertis may have celebrated Bridge’s viola music, in Bridge’s case it was not necessarily the example or influence of Tertis that led him to write them in the first place.
Bridge was one of those composers who came under the influence of W.W. Cobbett, an amateur patron of chamber music, who invented the ‘Fantasy’ (spelled variously), a single-movement form deriving from the sixteenth century, as the required approach in his influential chamber music competitions first run in 1905. Bridge won in 1907 with a Phantasy Piano Trio. In 1910 Cobbett commis sioned various composers and asked Bridge for a Piano Quartet.
When Frank Bridge first launched himself as a composer not only was there a ready market for short instrumental pieces for most instruments, particularly violin and cello, but Bridge himself, as a player, was part of a circle of practical musicians who played each other’s music. Although he played the viola, by and large his short encores were for violin or cello and were only later arranged for viola. The group recorded here date from 1901 to 1908 and are typical in their variety of mood and demands on the player.
The earliest in our group is the Berceuse, composed in 1901 and published the following year for violin or cello and piano, and later arranged for orchestra. With its lilting
accompaniment and softly affecting theme it appealed to a wide audience from the outset. Similarly the Serenade, dated April 1903, was also written for violin or cello and
later arranged for small orchestra, while Souvenir, dating from 1904, was conceived for violin and piano but not published until 1919.
Gathered as Two Pieces, Pensiero of 1905 and the Allegro appassionato of 1908 were Bridge’s only original viola works published in his lifetime, appearing as the first issues of the Lionel Tertis Viola Library in 1908. They were first performed at the Royal College of Music on 24 November 1909 when they were played by Audrey ffolkes. They show us the two sides of Bridge’s instrumental personality in such pieces, Pensiero restrained and elegiac, the punchy Allegro appassionato exuberant and expansive.
Typical genre pieces among Bridge’s extensive output of such music are Norse Legend for violin and piano and piano solo dating from 1905, but not published until 1919
nor orchestrated until 1938. Gondoliera was written in 1907 for violin and piano and first performed by a very young May Harrison with Hamilton Harty at the piano at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall in April 1908.
Lewis Foreman © 2009
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