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EXPLORING MUSIC: Appealing Lachrymae (Reflections on a Song of Dowland) and Other Works for Viola and Piano

The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987

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David Raymond

...the three English com­posers represented here, rediscovered the viola's subtlety and versatility and were moved to write fine works for it.


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For many years, the viola was the most underappreciated of string in­struments, regarded by most composers as useful filler in the orchestra or chamber ensemble, but (except for the occasional Mozart quintet or Brahms sonata) given little chance to shine on its own. Happily, that began to change in the 20th century, as numerous com­posers, including Hindemith, Walton, Ernest Bloch, and the three English com­posers represented here, rediscovered the viola's subtlety and versatility and were moved to write fine works for it.

The longest, and perhaps most substantial, piece is a 1919 sonata by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) which is famous for not winning a prize, a $1,000 award sponsored by the Washington, DC arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The composers' names were not revealed throughout the voting, and Clarke's sonata stubbornly tied with another viola piece. Mrs. Coolidge herself broke the tie: the winner was a suite by Ernest Bloch. The judges were flabbergasted to award the prestigious second prize to a woman!

During the voting, one of the judges observed that one of the tied pieces was by a philosopher, the other by a poet. I'd wager that Clarke's virtuosic but refined sonata was the "poetic" one. The connection with Bloch is in­teresting, sinc_e the beginning of Clarke's sonata bears at least a passing resemblance to Bloch's style; but there are also resemblances to the work of such contemporaries as Vaughan Williams and Ravel, all of which are fastidiously woven into a colorful and absorbing piece.

Rebecca Clarke was a professional violist, and her sonata bristles with the traditional difficulties of virtuoso string writing. Appel's playing is both delicate and phenomenally accurate, and he and Pettinger (who, despite Clarke's equal­ly demanding piano writing, never over­shadows his partner) provide the give-­and-take of fine chamber-music playing.

Clarke's elegantly effusive sonata is immediately appealing. Benjamin Brit­ten's "Lachrymae" (1950), like some of this composer's other music, can seem dry in an unsympathetic performance. There's no danger of that here: Appel and Pettinger do justice to the unique character of each of Britten's ten varia­tions on a song by the Elizabethan lutenist and composer John Dowland. Though the piece is primarily reflective (and, despite its title, not really lachrymose) there are some ample op­portunities for virtuosity. The final variation, in which Dowland's theme is finally straightforwardly presented, is, in its reticent way, quite moving.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941), a much­underappreciated composer, fits in nice­ly with this company. He was a contem­porary of Rebecca Clarke's (and, like her, a gifted violist) and a teacher of Ben­jamin Britten, whose "Variations on a Theme of ... '' are far better known than any of Bridge's own music. That's too bad, for Bridge was one of the most sear­ching and original of British composers. The "Pensiero" and "Allegro Appas­sionato" (1908) may lack the visionary qualities of Bridge's best music, but their late-romantic ardor is appealing-and fully realized by this talented duo.

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