“British Women Composers” = ETHEL SMYTH: Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 7; ELIZABETH MACONCHY: Three Preludes; IRÈNE REGINA WIENIAWKA: Violin Sonata in D Minor; PHYLLIS TATE: Triptych; ETHEL BARNS: La Chasse – Clare Howick, violin / Sophia Rahman, piano – Naxos 8.572291 78:09 ***1/2:
This very generously-filled CD offers up the music of composers whose collective careers spanned more than a hundred years. So we have two late-Romantic sonatas, two suites from the late twentieth century, and for added variety, a flashy little novelty piece à la Fritz Kreisler—quite a mix despite the one-size-fits-all album title. Of the five composers represented, you may have run across Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy before and possibly even Phyllis Tate. If you know the work of Irène Wieniawska or Ethel Barns, then good for you; they’re new to me, and the former is something of a find.
Neither of the two sonatas on the disc adds up to a fully satisfying musical experience though they both have real strengths. Curiously, while Smyth’s sonata starts like a house afire only to flag somewhat toward the close, Wieniawska’s is strongest at the finish. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, bastion of musical conservatism, with Carl Reinecke, However, she seems to have acquired more contemporary musical tastes along the way; her Violin Sonata of 1887 sounds Brahmsian; at least the passionate Allegro moderato first movement does. This is easily the best of the four, the Scherzo second movement a bit lightweight after such a portentous opening, while the slow movement has the bland prettiness of a Venetian boat song by Mendelssohn, though the middle section has the flavor of folk music, provenance uncertain. The last movement manages to reclaim some of the grandness of the opening but still doesn’t match in quality that strong first movement.
Irène Wieniawska (1879-1932), who published under the pseudonym Poldowski, was the daughter of Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawaski. His arch-Romantic violin concerti speak with a middle-European accent; however, the daughter studied in Brussels and in Paris with Vincent d’Indy, Her Violin Sonata of 1912 sounds decidedly French—Fauré comes to mind. The sonata starts with an uneventful movement marked Andante languido, portraying lonely Augusts spent in Paris maybe. The fiery Scherzo and leonine Finale are quite fine, especially the latter, but this kind of “end-loading” results in a work that seems a bit unbalanced. By the way, how did Belgian-born Wieniawska come to join the ranks of British women composers? – through marriage to Sir Aubrey Dean Paul, descendant of the First Duke of Marlborough.
Of the two works dating from more recent times, Maconchy’s series of brief preludes from 1970 is the more distinguished; two angular jittery movements frame a spare, rather haunting Andantino quieto in which the two instruments weave contrapuntal daisy chains of melody. Tate’s Triptych (1954) starts with an edgy arresting Prelude that’s a hard act to follow: the Scherzo and Soliloquy don’t fulfill the promise of this opening, the lengthy Soliloquy especially seeming to outlast Tate’s inspiration.
Ethel Barns’ La Chasse (1928) serves as a frothy little encore, though the tempo is more befitting a stately dance than a spirited hunt. But its series of double-stops, glissandos, trills, and harmonics gives Clare Howick the perfect opportunity to show off her considerable technical flare. In fact, the sparkling performance by both musicians is the best thing about this disc. Howick and Sophia Rahman seem to be enjoying themselves and clearly believe in this music, uneven though it may be. I’ll return to the Maconchy preludes and the two sonatas and will again savor the performances, I’m sure. That’s less than a ringing endorsement, I know, but that’s about as much enthusiasm as I can muster.
— Lee Passarella