Britten; Howells; Vaughan Williams Violin Sonatas
Howells’s First Sonata (1917-19) dates from a period when the British violin sonata was enjoying perhaps its greatest apogee with Bax, Ireland, Elgar and Moeran. Moreover, Howells’s work emanates from that golden period of his youthful vigour, of truly visionary, innovative chamber works which have yet to enjoy their properly recognised masterly status. John Gilbert and Susan Wass create a sensitive balance for the composer’s at times densely contrapuntal textures, and there is an intelligent understanding of the broader, seamless structure of the four movements moulded into one. Yet, the playing at times seems a little diffident. Gilbert’s phrasing lacks that limpid, faltering melancholy that Paul Barritt brings to his interpretation on Helios (3/94R), and the tempi seem to drag (the whole piece lasts more than two-and-a-quarter minutes longer than Barritt’s).
Gilbert and Wass seem happier in the contrasting five movements of Britten’s youthful Suite. There is an incisiveness about the March and the transparently diatonic Lullaby (marred occasionally by the odd lapse of intonation), but the central Moto perpetuo is not always together and it would have benefited more from a greater sense of rhythmical drive.
While the Howells and Britten are “early works”, Vaughan Williams’s Sonata in A minor comes from late in the composer’s life. Here the duo feel most comfortable in the more percussive Scherzo, while the freer outer movements, the initial Fantasia and Tema con variazioni, feel less secure and compare less favourably with the richer, lyrical ambience of Hugh Bean (EMI – nla) and Marianne Thorsen (Hyperion, 10/02) who bring, it seems to me, a greater fluency to Vaughan Williams’s unusual fusion of neo-romanticism and neo-classicism, special to this work and other late works like the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.