Author Topic: Chamber music from the United Kingdom  (Read 4162 times)

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Offline Lethevich

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Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« on: April 30, 2011, 10:11:46 AM »
Threads on this subject tend to focus on orchestral music, so let's diversify :)

From the very beginning of the English musical renaissance during the turn of the 20th century, chamber music was a large element of a prospective composer's output, and just as composers from this country began to create orchestral and choral works of real inspiration, so worthy chamber music began to be produced as well. The nature of the genre lends it much less profile than orchestral music, and I feel that the competition in the field is even more fierce given how many superb works the great Romantic period composers wrote. Along with the symphony and concerto, the violin sonata and string quartet was early on seen as a way for composer's to test themselves against masters of the past. Stanford wrote numerous works in this field, as did his contemporary McEwen, the latter's quartets are of particular interest.

According to this lack of exposure and demand, chamber music from this country is relatively lesser-known, and works only just being discovered can easily equal a lot of orchestral music which has long-since seen exposure on CD. An example of this is Vaughan Williams' violin sonata, which was more or less ignored until the 90s, but is a wonderful piece of music in an output that was otherwise very thoroughly explored. Even Elgar's three late chamber music masterpieces, which are of a level of quality not shy of many contemporaries such as Fauré, might still be considered somewhat niche recommendations.

The composers following the pioneering Stanford and Parry generation found in their now particularly distinctive means of musical expression, taking harmonic inspiration from Elgar and Delius amongst others, that chamber music offered more potential than simply an academic exercises. Vaughan Williams' first numbered string quartet (1908) was frowned upon by Stanford for its 'ugliness', Herbert Howells wrote his 'third' string quartet (not a particularly solid chronology) In Gloucestershire (1916-35, 1st ver lost) in a sprawling format that was positively antithetical to academic politeness.

I just heard this disc, and it demonstrates how relatively overlooked this medium is. The sonata by Walford Davies (1893-5) is striking in its 'Englishness', which hints towards the post-Elgar generation in its mixture of rhapsody and restraint. It's a really fine work, with a shimmering scherzo and an attractively pictorial slow movement. The sonata (1945) by York Bowen is more immediately impactful. It very much reflects my experience's with Bowen's solo piano music: it draws heavily upon continental models (in this case Tchaikovsky rather than the usual Chopin) to produce something of a startling solidarity. It's not particularly original, but it is a synthesis rather than pastiche, and its ardor and craft cannot be denied. I liken it to the kind of discoveries the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series makes - music of a high level of enjoyment if not necessarily a masterpiece.

I don't want to write too much, as I hope that others will want to chip in with composers and pieces that they particularly admire.
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Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #1 on: April 30, 2011, 11:25:53 AM »
Some stuff I like:

The Elgar quartet and quintet, definitely, coming from that sad reflective final part of his career - this is where Elgar comes closest to Brahms I think. And maybe they're "niche," but they seem to be getting more exposure lately (recent performance of the Piano 5tet here in Moscow, for instance).

I've heard a couple of the Rubbra quartets. I like the 2nd a lot, with its quasi-LvB "Cavatina" movement.

I've heard a few of the Simpson quartets. I don't like them as much as his symphonies. I do like the 6th quartet - it's the final in his "Razumovsky" trilogy, in which each 4tet is modeled after one of Beethoven's Op. 59 - an intriguing and IMHO daring idea, since he's implicitly putting himself up for comparison with the great LvB. But I like it enough in its own right, and would like to hear his 4th and 5th which are the first two in the series.

Expected to like but didn't very much: the Walton quartet, not bad but nowhere near his best work.

Not listened to much but intrigued: the quartets of Benjamin Frankel (can be found on YouTube) are attention-grabbing and seemingly more driven than his symphonies.

How about Purcell's fantasias and sonatas? or is that too early for you?
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Offline Luke

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2011, 11:31:44 AM »
I recently picked up a copy of a lovely little obscure book called English Chamber Music, written in wartime. It stops at Purcell (and covers everything up to him in great, exhasutive depth). So no, I don't think we can say Purcell is too early. His Fantasias may well be the finest chamber music to come out of England; they bear comparison to late Beethoven in some ways, and there isn't much you can say that about.

Offline Daverz

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #3 on: April 30, 2011, 11:44:06 AM »
Berkeley's Horn Trio is a favorite.  Very different from the Brahms.

Offline Lethevich

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #4 on: April 30, 2011, 12:06:15 PM »
How about Purcell's fantasias and sonatas? or is that too early for you?

The more the merrier! Like Luke alludes to, Purcell offered the final flowering of a brand of consort music composers which can go back to the late Renaissance. Music by Lawes, Locke, Jenkins, Philips, Thomas Simpson and others are treasures that I sadly only know on a superficial basis.

Berkeley's Horn Trio is a favorite.  Very different from the Brahms.

Berkeley wrote such fine chamber music, didn't he? It has a rather international outlook, with shades of Les Six, Stravinsky and others and with an exquisite craftsmanship which doesn't allow the comparison to become too unfavourable.
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #5 on: April 30, 2011, 12:35:25 PM »
Good thread, Sara. I have never really explored British chamber music. Orchestral, vocal, choral and piano, yes, but chamber music, no. I think I'll give the Elgar pieces Velimir mentioned a listen one of these days.
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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #6 on: April 30, 2011, 12:40:38 PM »
Recently listened to the Vaughan Williams Violin Sonata (at Lethe's suggestion) and found it a very interesting work, one that requires more than one or two listens to properly appreciate.  The first movement is a sort of rhapsody, in multiple sections which introduce new themes which feel like they are organic outgrowths of the previous.  The second movement Scherzo, well, I don't get it.  The third movement is a theme with variations which seems to turn into a sort of tone poem, despite the apparently strict form. 


Offline Lethevich

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #7 on: April 30, 2011, 12:48:11 PM »
Recently listened to the Vaughan Williams Violin Sonata (at Lethe's suggestion) and found it a very interesting work, one that requires more than one or two listens to properly appreciate.  The first movement is a sort of rhapsody, in multiple sections which introduce new themes which feel like they are organic outgrowths of the previous.  The second movement Scherzo, well, I don't get it.  The third movement is a theme with variations which seems to turn into a sort of tone poem, despite the apparently strict form.

:-* I think that it's this symphonic 'lift' that you describe in the finale which makes the biggest impact on me. It takes the piece as far as possible from a standardised/salon craft piece with two instrumentalists - the piano provides such an expansive backing that I can at times momentarally forget that this isn't a work for larger forces, in its rather epic-feeling traversal through RVW's fantasia form. It has some qualities in common with his last two symphonies.

The form itself plays a large part in its interest - at no point do I feel myself envisoning a standard sonata form plan, it seems to tap into a creative energy which conceals such frameworks. It's pure fantasy, but as per RVW also deceptively structured.
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Offline Luke

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #8 on: April 30, 2011, 12:57:23 PM »
Obviously Luke Ottevanger's Canticle Sonata...

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #9 on: April 30, 2011, 01:03:10 PM »
Obviously Luke Ottevanger's Canticle Sonata...

Never heard of the guy. ;)

Offline Luke

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #10 on: April 30, 2011, 01:21:16 PM »
Never heard of the guy. ;)

Yes, but didn't we have a discussion hereabouts recently to the tune of 'if you've heart of it, it can't be any good; the less well-known, the better it must be'. Discussion led by Sfz IIRC. The man clearly has a point!

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #11 on: April 30, 2011, 01:23:26 PM »
I'll single out the Bridge Phantasy Quartet for its uber Faurean Tone Painting.

Offline The new erato

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #12 on: April 30, 2011, 08:17:40 PM »
Rubbra's string quartets are perhaps my favorites of alle UK chamber music I know. Haven't heard the Naxos issues, but recommend the set on Dutton strongly, now available as a cheap twofer (I bought mine as single discs at full price and have  never regretted it).

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #13 on: May 01, 2011, 09:55:24 AM »
Rubbra's string quartets are perhaps my favorites of alle UK chamber music I know. Haven't heard the Naxos issues, but recommend the set on Dutton strongly, now available as a cheap twofer (I bought mine as single discs at full price and have  never regretted it).

Thanks for mentioning this!  I love Rubbra and did not realize recordings of his quartets were available.  I've like the Maggini quartet in other recordings so I snatched their recordings.

Offline Toccata&Fugue

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #14 on: May 01, 2011, 01:14:31 PM »
I recall a very powerful Cello Sonata by Iain Hamilton on an old Argo LP. Sadly, I sold it many years ago when I was cleaning out my LP collection. *kicks self repeatedly*

Offline Lethevich

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #15 on: May 02, 2011, 12:43:41 PM »
Delius's chamber music isn't as well known as the rest of his output, but its quality is clear. It's remarkable to think that he was born in the same year as Debussy, 10 years before Schoenberg and 20 before Stravinsky - he was writing mould-breaking and radical music before Schoenberg had thought about dropping tonality (A Village Romeo and Juliet, 1901, Sea Drift, 1904, Mass of Life, 1905). It's also a testament to how unconventional his style of writing was that it remains well out of the international repertoire. This is especially ironic, as Delius was one of the most international of composers, synthesizing with ease the traditions of England, France, Germany, Scandinavia and America.

His violin sonatas I suppose are the first stop in this region of his music. He wrote four, and including an early unnumbered one they cover the entire span of his compositional career right until the 3rd, which was written while he was blind. They represent his idiom beautifully - generally they can be presented in either one movement, or the designated three sections. This sums up the composer's aesthetic very well, as though the pieces are expertly proportioned and structured, the composer's interest in an integrated and seamless composition wins out - there are defined movements, but they fit together in a positively un-sonata form fashion. Contrasts in the music come from momentary flights rather than entire movements in competition with one another.

The unnumbered sonata is rather good but not a mature work. The No.1 sonata, however, is. It feels like his most easily-written of the pieces, with a dynamism and steadiness which I do not find in the following two pieces. The violin writing is entirely the composer's own: mixing balladic singing, a certain wistfulness, and most recognisable a consistent undulation and alternation of moods, sometimes catching as if from a breeze - it gives the work a constantly shifting, prismatic quality that is more easy to hear in solo instrumental writing than in his works for orchestra. The piano writing tends to support rather than spur on the soloist, but the instruments both tend to be written at the forefront during the composer's momentary shifts in mood, further enhances the weight between these flickers of light and shade. His next two sonatas are shorter and feel less ambitious, although this is no bad thing in No.2, as it lends the work an extraordinarily concise feel. This relative brevity is despite its beautiful, unhurried moments such as the first movement swaying theme from the violin, which gradually builds until the piano elaborates the theme clearly for the first time, to be followed by the violin - it is a pleasingly fraternal moment. No.3 is somewhat more spare than the others, the lucidity of the violin becomes slightly more knotted, and the music as a whole is slower, which unavoidably lends the work a feeling of a darkening - but Delius's core ideals remain strongly represented.
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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #16 on: May 02, 2011, 12:47:01 PM »
For the Delius Sonatas I have this obscure set from members of the LSO.


Offline Lethevich

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #17 on: May 02, 2011, 12:48:15 PM »
Contrary to my whining about their obscurity, the violin sonatas are rather well-represented on disc. The 3 or so recordings I've heard have all been top-notch and I can't really pick a favourite :)
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #18 on: May 02, 2011, 01:47:59 PM »
Great post about Delius, Sara! Now I MUST listen to those works... But I have to be in the mood first.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline Lethevich

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Re: Chamber music from the United Kingdom
« Reply #19 on: May 02, 2011, 02:30:05 PM »
He is such a mood-influenced composer, isn't he? I cannot force myself to casually enjoy his music any more than I can with Wagner, it's too individual, but when I am in the mood it has a phenomonal vitality.

I checked Wikipedia, and it appears that he wrote three string quartets? How on earth did I not know about those. Only one is a mature work, but if it's on the level of his single cello sonata and violin sonatas I must check for a recording.
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