Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Romantic Cello

The Romantic Cello - Philip Handy, VIF Records VRCD076
This new disc from the young cellist Philip Handy and pianist Robert Markham, on VIF Records, is centred on the music of Frederick Delius. They perform Delius's Sonata for Cello and Piano and his Caprice, and surround these with other works from the 20th century romantic tradition, with Frank Bridge's Meditation, Berceuse and Sonata for Cello and Piano, and Samuel Barber's early Sonata for Cello and Piano. The recital is completed with the Homage to Delius by Thomas Daish which was written for Philip Handy.

Frank Bridge wrote many small pieces for cello and piano, and Handy and Markham start their recital with two, Meditation and Berceuse. Both are very much songs without words and Handy plays them with a very elegant sense of line. he has a nice singing tone with a good depth to it, and he shapes Bridge's phrases finely. The Berceuse is perhaps the slightly more complex piece, with a nicely flowing piano part.

Bridge's Sonata for Cello and Piano is an entirely different affair, far bigger in scale. It was written in the period 1913-17 (roughly the same time as Delius was writing his sonata), and the work reflects Bridge's despair over the war and the state of the world.

The opening movement, Allegro ben moderato, is very much a dialogue between cello and piano. Handy plays the opening with gorgeous singing tone, but it is darkly troubled as well and more complex, strenuous passages follow. It is a long, wandering rather rhapsodic movement with some glorious moments redolent of English romanticism at its best. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo - Molto allegro e agitato, starts quieter and darker, a meditative cello with a highly textured piano part. Then suddenly all is fast, dramatic, intense and highly disturbed. But this subsides and Bridge brings back the opening, now given a highly melancholic and elegiac tint.

Samuel Barber's Sonata for Cello and Piano dates from his late teens (not long after Delius was writing his Caprice). It is an astonishingly mature work. The opening movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is a complex, brooding and troubled affair with Handy and Markham bringing out the sense of melancholy. At times the movement's strenuousness reminded me of moments in the Bridge though the harmonic language can be somewhat more advanced. But eventually the mists clear and Barber treats us to a lovely singing melody as the second subject, which Handy plays with pellucid tone. The second movement, Adagio, opens in a slow elegiac manner but suddenly there are fistfuls of notes and a feeling of Shostakovich before the elegy returns. The final movement, Allegro Appassionato, is a big, bravura piece, strenuous in both cello and piano. There are quieter moments too and this rather rhapsodic movement has its skittish moments too.

Delius's Sonata for cello and piano was written in 1916 for the great English cellist Beatrice Harrison (who made the first recording of Elgar's Cello Concerto and was also recorded playing the cello in her garden to the birds). A single movement work, Delius writes for the instrument in a meandering rhapsodic fashion with great harmonic freedom. Handy brings lovely expressive tone to the work, emphasising its flexibility. The results combine both passion and freedom.

Delius's Caprice dates from 1930 and was originally written for cello and chamber orchestra, as Caprice and Elegy, though the Caprice has taken on a life of its own. A delicate, evocative work, it brings to mind the Bridge pieces from the beginning of the disc.

Finally, a sort of hommage, Hommage to Delius by the young British composer Thomas Daish, a work written specifically for Handy and deliberately evoking the Delius works on the disc. In his programme note Daish describes the work as 'a pastiche' and he uses elements from the sonata, Cello Concerto and Caprice. A lyrical rhapsodic work, which encourages the cello to sing but with dark undertones.

Whilst you may want a more famous name playing the Delius sonata, but I can highly recommend Handy and Markham's performances. The particular combination of Delius and Bridge works well, Bridge being one of the most international, outward looking of British composers at the time. None of the composers on the disc can be described as being quite central to the mainstream in Western music in the first half of the 20th century and it is fascinating to compare and contrast.

Where I have reservations was in the inclusion of the Barber, a work that I am happy to have encountered but which I would not be returning to regularly. I can't help wondering what the programme would have been like if they had included the Rachmaninov sonata instead, but we have that to look forward to on volume two of his Romantic Cello recordings. Handy is a fine young cellist, certainly a talent to watch.

The disc is available on ITunes, or direct from Philip Handy.
The Romantic Cello
Frank Bridge (1879 - 1941) - Meditation [2.57]
Frank Bridge (1879 - 1941) - Berceuse [2.41]
Frank Bridge (1879 - 1941) - Sonata for Cello and Piano [22.29]
Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981) - Sonata for Cello and Piano [17.21]
Frederick Delius (1862 - 1934) - Sonata for Cello and Piano
Frederick Delius (1862 - 1934) - Caprice [2.26]
Thomas Daish - Homage to Delius [4.59]
Philip Handy (cello)
Robert Markham (piano)
Recorded Beaulieu Abbey, 5-6 September 2011

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