Saturday 21 December 2019

Bach, Feery, Maconchy, Beamish, Imogen Holst: music for solo viola from Rosalind Ventris

Imogen Holst
Imogen Holst
Bach, Feery, Maconchy, Beamish, Imogen Holst; Rosalind Ventris; City Music Foundation at the Church of St Bartholomew the Less
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative programme of music for unaccompanied viola by British and Irish women composers, works which all deserve to be better known.

As part of the City Music Foundation's lunchtime concert series at the church of St Bartholomew the Less, on Wednesday 18 December 2019, viola player Rosalind Ventris gave a solo recital, performing JS Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C major (in a version for solo viola) alongside music for unaccompanied viola by Amanda Feery, Imogen Holst, Sally Beamish and Elizabeth Maconchy; four women composers, two contemporary and two writing in the mid-20th century.

We started with the Bach, and of course his unaccompanied cello music works well on the viola because the viola's strings are tuned to the same pitches, but an octave higher, as the cello so that where Bach is working with the natural resonances and open strings of the cello, this carries over into the viola. Of course, it helps that Ventris has a lovely mellow tone with a nice depth to it. In the 'Prelude' we could appreciate her sense of line in the long sequences of descending scales, whilst the 'Allemande' was very much a perky dance, albeit with elegance too. The 'Courante' was full of brisk energy, and the 'Sarabande' slow and thoughtful. The first 'Bourree' was an elegant dance with lively rhythms, whilst the second was more haunting with somewhat veiled tone. Finally, we had a 'Gigue' full of rhythmic energy.

Elizabeth Maconchy
Elizabeth Maconchy
Amanda Feery (born 1984) is an Irish composer, currently based in the USA. Her Boreal (from 2010) was inspired by ideas of the sub-Arctic climate. It started in a very spare manner, with a sense of the material developing from a single note. There seemed to be folk influences, perhaps Celtic or Nordic, alongside more jagged material. As the phrases increased in length, I was struck by Feery's use of differing textures within the same phrase.

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) wrote Five Sketches for Viola in 1984, and they were first performed at the Wigmore Hall by Nicholas Logie. In a short programme note Maconchy talked about trying to explore the viola's range and to make the pieces varied in rhythm and content. The first movement was based on expressive, angular phrases with short skittish interludes, creating something thoughtful yet intense. The second movement was vigorous and strong in character, with wistful, slightly edgy moments. Maconchy's is not a comfortable harmonic language, and is one which requires thought and concentration, but the music is well worth the effort. When I talked to Rosalind about this recital [see my interview] she said how satisfying it was to return to Maconchy's piece having played Maconchy's string quartet in the intervening period. The third movement was slow, almost lyrical with faster rhythmic moments, and the fourth was strong yet elegiac. We ended on a perky rhythmic note, with slightly jazzy elements, yet everything evaporated at the end.

Sally Beamish (born 1956) is herself a viola player [see my interview with Sally], and her Penillion (from 1998) is based on the improvised Welsh form. It started with a series of strong gestures and developed into something rather rhapsodic with a great sense of freedom to the viola writing, yet hints of the elegiac too.

Imogen Holst (1907-1984) is less well-known for her own compositions than for her work with composers such as Benjamin Britten. Her Suite for Unaccompanied Viola dates from the 1930s and consists of four movements, 'Prelude', 'Cinquepace', 'Saraband' and 'Gigue'. It was premiered at a concert given by the MacNaghten String Quartet as part of the MacNaghten concerts founded by Anne MacNaghten, founder of the string quartet, and Elizabeth Lutyens to promote contemporary music. [I was lucky enough to be coached by Anne MacNaghten at a Summer school in the 1980s]. That original concert included Elizabeth Maconchy's Quintet for strings, the first performance of a quartet by Elizabeth Lutyens and music by Patrick Hadley and Philip Rosseter.

For all the period-inspiration of the movement titles, the first movement was strong and rhapsodic, creating music that was complex yet ending on a thoughtful note. The second movement was all rhythmic vigour, with hints of the music of RVW with whom Imogen Holst had studied. The 'Saraband' was yearning and thoughtful, whilst the work ended with a lively 'Gigue' which skittered along madly.

Neither the Maconchy nor the Holst are well known works, and both deserve to be better known.

The concert took place in the charming confines of the church of St Bartholomew the Less, an 18th century re-build by George Dance the Younger within Medieval shell of the original chapel for St Bartholomew's Hospital. On a cold December lunchtime the church good audience for Rosalind's recital, which was part of the City Music Foundation's series showcasing their artists. The recitals continue in 2020 with soprano Anna Cavalerio in  music by Handel and Strozzi on 15 January 2020. Full details from the CMF website.

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