REBECCA CLARKE: Viola Sonata; FRANK BRIDGE: Cello Sonata, Serenade, Spring  Song, Scherzo; RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Six Studies in English Folk Song – Natalie Clein, cello/ Christian Ihle Hadland, piano – Hyperion CDA 68253, 60:07 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

This disc is a mini survey of tonal English chamber music for cello and piano written in the first quarter of the 20th century. The three composers’ music reveal its Romantic, and English folk song roots. Yet, there’s enough modern influences in the works that make it of interest to contemporary listeners. The soloist, Natalie Clein was the BBC Young musician of the year at age 16, studied with Heinrich Schiff and has gone on to develop a career as an orchestral and chamber music performer.

Rebecca Clarke was raised in a musical family—all her siblings learned musical instruments. She attended the Royal Academy of Music as a violist and composer. An early composition, Danse bizarre, won her a scholarship to study with the eminent British composer Charles Villiers Stanford, a devotee of Brahms.  However, arguments with her abusive father over his affairs with women, caused her to leave after two years, losing the money from her father needed to complete her musical education.  She played the viola in chamber music ensembles and performed in Henry Wood’s Queen Hall Orchestra. Her Viola Sonata (1919) is her best known work, and is a staple of chamber music violists today. Clarke called it a Cello sonata when performed by a cellist, as it is here.

It’s easy to ascertain its popularity today from the first movement, “Impetuoso.” The energetic opening cello fanfare catches the listener’s attention and the following Romantic and folk-song melodies flow easily. The fast moving scherzo reveals the influence of the Jewish composer Ernst Bloch. The emotional center of the work is the final movement that starts with a sad but beautiful melody and ends with a virtuosic and dramatic finale, reprising the opening fanfare. Clein and pianist Hadland play with the requisite force and lyrical intensity that the work demands.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was the mentor to Benjamin Britten, the most prominent British composer of the 20th century. Like Rebecca Clarke, Bridge was a violist and received a scholarship to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music.  Bridge played in one of his father’s theater orchestras, most likely playing beside Clarke in the Queen Hall Orchestra. He began his music career in 1903, performing in quartets and composing short ‘salon’ pieces for performance in the home and concert hall. Serenade, Spring Song, and Scherzo are melodic examples of these Romantic works, lusciously performed here.

Bridge’s Cello Sonata (1913-1917) parallels World War I and the divide between the composer’s Romantic and modern compositional periods. He was shocked by the carnage of the Great War and couldn’t reconcile it with his pacifistic sentiments. The gorgeously Romantic first movement was written before the outbreak of the War, but even here there is a sense of loss of a world that has passed. The second movement begins with a despairingly beautiful cello melody that reflects its composition during the Great War. The nervous scherzo that follows reflects and increasingly distraught composer. The work ends with a sober reprise of the musical material of the first movement. Clein mentions that the classic Britten-Rostropovich recording of 1968 “held a special place in my imagination.” Her realization is profoundly heartfelt and moving.

The disc ends with Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) Six Studies in English Folk Song, a tribute to English folk songs which had an influence on Clarke and Bridge. It’s a mellifluous conclusion to a very satisfying disc of superbly performed and recorded British chamber music.

—Robert Moon