Tuesday 6 February 2024

Late romantic at Wigmore Hall: Timothy Ridout & Frank Dupree in York Bowen and Rebecca Clarke

York Bowen by Elliott & Fry, bromide print (NPG x86430, © National Portrait Gallery, London)
York Bowen by Elliott & Fry, bromide print
(NPG x86430, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Enescu, Fauré, Kreisler, Rebecca Clarke: Viola Sonata, York Bowen: Viola Sonata No. 1; Timothy Ridout, Frank Dupree; Wigmore Hall
3 February 2024

Youthful muscularity, engaging manner and sweetly singing tone in Timothy Ridout's exploration of early 20th century music for viola with a focus on those inspired by Lionel Tertis

Following on from Simon Callaghan's lunchtime concert performing Cyril Scott [see my review], the evening concert at Wigmore Hall on 3 February 2024 featured viola player Timothy Ridout and pianist Frank Dupree in a programme inspired by viola player Lionel Tertis that featured York Bowen's Viola Sonata no. 1 and Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata along with music by Enescu, Fauré and Fritz Kreisler.

Born the same year as Pablo Casals (1876), Lionel Tertis devoted his life to opening composers' and performers' eyes to the viola as a solo instrument. A wide range of works were written for him and inspired by him, whilst his own and other people's transcriptions were designed to fill other gaps in the repertoire. Timothy Ridout's programme ended with York Bowen's sonata from 1905 which Bowen and Tertis premiered and the other major work in the programme was Rebecca Clarke's ground-breaking Viola Sonata from 1919; Clarke, a viola player herself, being one of Tertis' pupils.

We began with George Enescu's Concertstück, written in 1906 as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire. It opened with free rhapsody with hints of folk music and bravura climaxes, leading to a vigorous main section with a real bravura ending. Throughout, we could enjoy Ridout's sense of poetry and mellow, sweet tone. Next came Tertis' transcription of Fauré's Elegie for cello and piano, all lyric melancholy and lovely warm tone.

Rebecca Clarke in 1919
Rebecca Clarke in 1919
The first half ended with Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata from 1919; a work which famously shocked the jurors in Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's competition for the best piano and viola work when it was discovered that Rebecca Clarke (who had entered the work under a male pseudonym) was a woman. Though she studied under Stanford and knew RVW, Clarke's style includes influences from French music too. 

Ridout's approach to the sonata was dramatic and muscular at times, bringing out the music's robustness and dynamism. Beginning with a dramatic, rhapsodic gesture the first movement was flowing, intense and rather upfront with a contrasting meditative second subject, though turbulence returned during the development. The middle movement was a vivid dance, Ridout and Dupree bringing out the English folk influences. The finale began with a deeply felt, rather questing melody and as the movement progressed Ridout and Dupree drew increasing intense passion from the music. There was a lovely freedom to their performance as the music fined down to nothing and then erupted again, the ending with the return of earlier material was one of untrammelled passion. 

Like Ethel Smyth and Augusta Holmes, Rebecca Clarke shocked some of her contemporaries precisely because the music she wrote was not perceived as 'ladylike'. Ridout and Dupree however revelled in this atmosphere, bringing a youthful muscularity to the performance that was totally engaging.

After the interval we heard Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro which he initially passed off as being in the style of Pugnani(!). Here we heard it in a transcription which was performed by Tertis. Ridout brought energy and passion to the Praeludium but there was poetry too, whilst the Allegro was pure virtuoso fun and energy. The viola is a bigger instrument than the violin, so that all the bravura elements had a more muscular quality which was very appealing, rendered brilliantly by Ridout.

York Bowen was from the other place; rather than belonging to the coterie of English composers associated with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, Bowen studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Frederick Corder. Corder had studied in Cologne and spent a year in Milan (where he met Verdi and Boito). If Stanford was aligned to Brahms, then Corder veered more towards Liszt and Wagner. That said, York Bowen's Viola Sonata No. 1 is a work that seems to have Brahms in its antecedents, how could it not when Brahms' two clarinet sonatas had been issued in approved versions for viola (mainly at the behest of Brahms' publishers), thus rendering them some of the few major late-romantic pieces for viola. Bowen seems to have enjoyed writing for the instrument and he produced two viola sonatas, a concerto as well as a quartet for four violas.

The opening movement of the sonata, Allegro moderato was stormy, full of questing, restless energy. A large scale movement, it responded to the viola as solo instrument with music of great strength yet dying to a haunting ending. The slow movement was more folkish in sound, with Ridout's mellow tone and lovely singing quality contributing strongly. Yet here too, the music developed large-scale passion and there were dark moments behind the melodic outlines. The finale began with a dramatic gesture, leading to music that was rhapsodic but with a perky undertow to it. Again, highly vigorous, it was intriguing the way there were English melodic outlines amidst the Brahmsian development, and the ending was one of real emotional strength. Terrific, strong stuff.

Impressively, Ridout played the entire programme from memory. He and pianist Frank Dupree seemed to have a warmly communicative relationship, with Ridout playing the programme alongside Dupree rather than sheltering in front of the piano. Throughout the programme, Dupree matched Ridout's approach, so all the pieces had an engaging warmth, poetry and communicativeness alongside a robust strength.

We were treated to an encore. Eric Coates wrote his Souvenir of first meeting in 1943 for Tertis and though Tertis played it privately with Coates, the viola player had retired. It was only ever performed in a version for violin and the viola version was reconstructed thanks to John Wilson.

Timothy Ridout's celebration of the art of Lionel Tertis is now out on Harmonia Mundi

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