“Twentieth-Century Sonatas for Cello and Piano” = FRANK BRIDGE: Cello Sonata in D Minor, H125; DELIUS: Cello Sonata; JOHN IRELAND: Cello Sonata in G Minor; REBECCA CLARKE: Sonata for Viola (or Cello) and Piano; IVOR KEYS: Cello Sonata; EDMUND RUBBRA: Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 60 – Alexander Baillie, cello/ John Thwaites, p. – Somm SOMMCD 251-2 (2 discs) 57:37, 71:51 [Distr. by Allegro] ****

This survey of twentieth-century English music for cello and piano takes us all the way from the Brahmsian effusions of Frank Bridge’s 1917 sonata to Ivor Keys’ 1960 effort that, in cycles-of-history fashion, returns us to a ripe post-Brahmsian idiom after side excursions into Impressionism (Delius and Clarke) and neo-Classicism (Rubbra). Actually, Bridge’s work takes a somewhat more modernist turn after the opening sonata-allegro. It seems that Bridge had originally planned a traditional four-movement structure for his work, completing the very much traditional first movement in 1913. But during the First World War his aesthetic evolved, and he decided to conclude the work with a freeform single movement that embraced elements of slow movement, scherzo, and finale. While there’s an air of pained melancholy in the first movement, the second is even darker and more elegiac in spirit as befits the sober events of the war years. The section equating to a scherzo is, by contrast, busy and athletic, forecasting the more angular style of Bridge’s later music. Somewhat unexpectedly, the brief finale manages to be more upbeat and chipper. If the sonata fails to hold together either emotionally or stylistically, that’s because it represents a composer in transition between the Edwardian past and the modernist future. It’s still a work of passionate and even profound beauty.

The Bridge contrasts effectively with the Delius sonata that follows. It’s dreamily Impressionistic, though it manages to rouse itself to a similarly lively and upbeat finale. Cast in one continuous movement, its form is tripartite, the more mobile outer sections being thematically related, while the middle section is quietly introspective.

Like the Bridge sonata, John Ireland’s G Minor Sonata (1923) seems to find its composer in a transitional state. The first movement has a passionate, dramatic cragginess that  in the words of Jeremy Dibble, “looks forward to that acetic, more dissonant world of February’s Child (1929) and the Piano Concerto’s first movement (1930). . . .” In contrast, the major-key slow movement is generously lyrical, post-Romantic in flavor. Further contrast: the last movement is even more angular and dissonant than the first, sounding like the hard-edged neo-Classicism that Ravel adopted in his chamber music of the ‘20s. Again, an interesting mix that jars even as it satisfies.

Somehow, I’m most impressed with Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata of 1919, here played on the cello. Apparently I’m not alone in my admiration: the work was a finalist in the Coolidge Competition, which was ultimately won by Ernest Bloch. Clarke entered the work under the pseudonym Anthony Trent; according to Jeremy Dibble, the judges “were astonished to learn that it was by a woman.” Living in a more enlightened age, I’m not at all astonished either that the piece was written by a woman or that it is my favorite on the program. It’s frankly Debussian, reminding me of the sonatas that the Frenchman wrote just a couple of years earlier for cello and then violin. Probably one reason I’m most partial to Clarke’s sonata is that it’s of a piece stylistically, but it’s also an accomplished and very beautiful composition as well. As a violist, Clarke could be counted on to speak the lingua franca of her instrument.

The final two sonatas provide further points of comparison and contrast. Both end with a rather enigmatic theme-and-variations movement in which the theme is, at points, atomized to near unregconizability. But otherwise, the two works are aesthetically quite different, the Rubbra a late entry in the back-to-Bach movement, while the Keys sonata is an exercise in neo-Romanticism. Edmund Rubbra’s sonata begins with a highly contrapuntal movement that reminds me a bit of Hindemith in a similar vein. The scherzo-like second movement, also contrapuntal, is a little more individual sounding. Appropriately, the variations finale ends with a fugue marked Adagio e molto sereno.

Ivor Keys’ brand of neo-Romanticism is very much the edgy variety of post-World War II Sam Barber, such as the Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto. Maybe Englishman Alan Rawsthorne is a better point of reference. Keys’ sonata has moments of passionate declamation alternating with reflective passages. The strangely gnomic theme of the finale undergoes a more volatile set of variations than occurs in the Rubbra sonata, and unlike the Rubbra, the Keys sonata jogs its way to the finish line.

These six works thus encapsulate quite a range of expression, and that range is thoroughly appreciated by the team of Alexander Baillie and John Thwaites. They play with total sympathy as well as fine musicianship. Even the oft-recorded Bridge and Delius sonatas get fully competitive performances here. Then there is the program to consider—pretty much unmatched in terms of breadth. Excellent sound from the Sendesaal in Bremen, Germany, as well. A must for lovers of chamber music with cello.

—Lee Passarella