GMCD 7352 – Music by Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), Vol. 2
London Piano Trio; Robert Atchison (violin); Ormesby Ensemble
American Record Guide – September/October 2012
In his highly regarded seven-volume Essays in Musical Analysis, Sir Donald Francis Tovey ventured back in time through the realms of Palestrina and Wilbye and as far forward as Vaughan Williams and Hindemith. But his primary attention was given to that rich body of music that came out of Vienna, Salzburg, and Berlin between the mid-1700s and the beginning of the 1900s—Haydn and Mozart to Wagner and Elgar, so to speak. This was not entirely a matter of personal taste on Tovey’s part. That was the comparatively limited range musicians were playing and audiences demanding. Tovey after all was writing in support of the concerts and recitals of his own time, including many given by himself.
This is the second CD of Tovey’s music released by Guild. Like the first (J/A 2011) it reflects the orthodox musical life led by the composer at a time when one compositional revolution followed another and in seeming pandemonium. Tovey belonged to the conservative wing of Britain’s already institutionalized cultural life. From 1924 until he died in 1940 he was a Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, where tradition ran deep. Tovey did not belong to the avant-garde, and thus missed most of Schoenberg and Bartok. Opera was not his beat, so he had to pass up involvement in the big works of Richard Strauss, though the Essays contain a superlative report on Don Juan and other of that composer’s tone poems. Ballet does not appear to have played a major role in his life—the best of it was taking place on the continent—and so he didn’t get to know the early Stravinsky.
Thus it isn’t at all surprising that when it came to writing his own music, Tovey paddled in familiar waters. If he had a personal model, it was Brahms; both the Trio and the Piano Quartet have overtly Brahmsian beginnings and are warmly tonal. Tovey’s writing is free of excess and self-indulgence. When he finished what he wanted to say, he stopped. How nice. Tovey was a pianist, and it shows in all those cascading arpeggios. But he knew what the strings could do, and he gives each a welcome life to live.
The only flop here is the Sonata Eroica for solo violin, which runs 24 minutes and is bedecked with a full array of contrapuntal challenges and a requisite number of doublestops and the like. It is dedicated to Tovey’s friend Adolph Busch, though how often Busch played it is unknown. It is a somewhat tedious affair, suggesting that though the date of composition is the composer’s late 30s, the work may have earlier roots and go back to an undergraduate thesis.
Fanfare Magazine September – October 2011
Interest in the music of Donald Francis Tovey is growing exponentially, and on the evidence of this disc, that is no bad thing. The lyric underpinning of Tovey’s music verges on the exquisite.
It is difficult to imagine a more committed performance of the Piano Trio, op. 27 (1910), than this one by the London Piano Trio. The players certainly enjoy the sense of the expansive to the first movement’s close. Occasional suspect intonation is not overly distracting, as it is only occasional. Olga Dunk is a strong pianist with a solid tone who nevertheless bends with the wind in chamber music. The slow movement (Larghetto maestoso) is grand and proud, while the counterpoint of the finale, while presumably of Brahmsian intent, actually emerges as charming. The players’ zeal is palpable. Dunk’s variety of touch brings plenty of life to proceedings. A valuable addition to the catalog.
The Sonata Eroica dates from 1913 and is dedicated to Adolf Busch. Certainly the chance to shine brings out the best in violinist Robert Atchison, who plays most expressively. He is closely recorded, but not uncomfortably so. The vigor of the Vivace second movement (a scherzo) is vividly rendered; if the slow movement, an Andante tranquillo, is hardly deep, it does rise against the accusation of “mood music” (leveled at it by the booklet annotators); the fugal writing of the finale stretches Atchison but he manages to maintain a light touch when appropriate.
Dating from 1900, the bipartite Piano Quartet explores some dark spaces. Brahms again is in evidence in some of the piano writing, explosive and passionate. The second part begins with an exquisite cello song, tactfully yet resonantly shadowed by piano. It certainly constitutes one of the more memorable moments of the disc. The tuning of the strings is better here than in the Piano Trio, enabling the gentleness of the Molto Adagio section of the second movement to shine. In fact it is the gentler moments of this work that nestle in the memory, perhaps because of the affection lavished on them by the performers.
Recording standards are of the highest. Peter Shore contributes an extensive essay on Tovey in the booklet, but the notes on the music itself (by Shore and Atchison) are of the purely descriptive variety and offer little if any insight.
International Record Review March 2011
Our knowledge of Donald Tovey as composer, rather than pedagogue, grows apace as more of his output becomes available. In the July / August 2010 issue I welcomed a disc of two of his string quartets from Guild and now, from the same source, arrives one of three further chamber works. They are all from the period 1900-13: looking at the list of Tovey’s compositions at the back of Mary Grierson’s 1952 biography of the composer, it’s striking that virtually his entire output comes from those years, with just two significant works – the opera The Bride of Dionysus (completed 1928) and the Cello Concerto (1937) – coming after. Yet the pre-First World War period saw what seems a sustained burst of furious activity, especially in the writing of chamber music. Though Tovey’s professorial duties in Edinburgh may have sapped his energy and eaten up his time, something else must surely have happened to stem that confident creative flow. Was it simply a sense of rejection from the lack of interest or enthusiasm shown by the public for the kind of rich, intricate, post-Brahmsian music he was purveying, at a time when the musical world was in stylistic ferment? It’s hard to say: but Tovey’s pre-war output (about 30 works) remains an impressive phenomenon.
Certainly Tovey was for his time a very conservative composer – he clearly heard the giant Brahms dogging his footsteps, just as Brahms had heard the giant Beethoven – but with the passage of time the `reactionary’ features of his music have become largely irrelevant to an assessment of if, and we are left only with the fine qualities of his craftsmanship and the need to discern his individual voice within the great tradition to which he was so devoted. It sometimes seems to me like the sort of music Dr Johnson might have written, had he happened to be born as a musician towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although almost every aspect of Tovey’s musical language was deeply imbued by his study and admiration of Brahms, his actual melodic inspiration is not very Brahmsian in lilt, cadence and phraseology: within it a definite Englishry, at once shyly romantic and bluffly jovial, is trying to make itself heard. The beginnings of his movements are often rather neutral or indistinctive (the opening of the Piano Quartet is an example), yet as they proceed they steadily gain strength and conviction in the weaving together of their themes and motifs: it’s as if Tovey needed initially to disguise himself, and only the process of development itself could release his considerable reserves of lyricism and expressive power.
As to the particular works on this CD, all of them world premiere recordings, the Piano Quartet in E minor (1900) is in a two-movement form, a quite involved sonataform first movement being succeeded by an expansive theme and variations almost twice as long and ending with a beautiful tranquillo coda in which the theme is borne gently into the upper reaches of the ensemble. The Piano Trio in D major (1910) is a more forthright work in three movements. It has a particularly beautiful slow movement, and the finale is in Tovey’s characteristically rollicking vein, where the Brahmsian textures are leavened by echoes of HandeL The most striking work, though, is probably the four movement Sonata Eroica for unaccompanied violin. This was composed in 1913; possibly Tovey was aware of Reger’s Op. 91 Solo Violin Sonatas composed eight years before, though his sonata hardly sounds like Reger – nor (despite a highly effective fugue in the finale) does it sound much like J. S. Bach, whom one would have expected to be his model. It seems to me the most `English’ in sound of these three works, with the scherzo a veritable rough sublimation of a country dance. The general tone, to my ear, is more intimate than heroic, but there is no doubt that the highly polyphonic writing and wealth of triple- and quadruple-stopping would tax any violinist to the limit.
Robert Atchison, whom I have praised on page 41 for his new disc of violin music by Armstrong Gibbs, seems an eloquent exponent, making out a powerful case for a work that ought certainly to find a niche in the sparse repertoire of substantial pieces for unaccompanied violin. Atchison is also the violinist of both the London Piano Trio and the Ormesby Ensemble (the pianist of both is the excellent Olga Dudnik, his partner on the Armstrong Gibbs CD, and twice misprinted here in Guild’s booklet as Olga Dunk). In fact all the performances sound expert and sympathetic, and the recorded sound, if a little close-miked, is very vivid. Warmly recommended to anyone who has discovered the real charm of Tovey’s music.
The booklet notes omit to tell us that the D major Trio is No. 3 of Tovey’s three piano trios – the other two, Opp. 1 and 8, are available on Toccata Classics (reviewed in January 2009), also played by the London Piano Trio. That disc was billed as `Tovey Chamber Music, Volume One’, but it looks as if this particular project has migrated to Guild. Roll on the Horn Trio, the Piano Quintet, the Gluck Variations, the Balliol Dances, the D major String Quartet and the Sonata for solo cello.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) war einer der angesehensten Musiktheoretiker im England des letzten Jahrhunderts. Seine Kompositionen sind heute so gut wie vergessen. Nachdem das Label Toccata mit der Einspielung von Klaviertrios, des von Pablo Casals uraufgeführten Cellokonzerts und der Symphonie op.32 Pionierarbeit geleistet hat, sind nun beim nicht weniger für seine Entdeckungen bekannten englisch-schweizerischen Label Guild zwei von Toveys Werken für Streichquartett erschienen.
Die 1900 geschriebene ‘Aria mit elf Variationen’ op.11 ist ein über halbstündiges Werk, das einem recht einfachen Thema, das in seinem Rhythmus an die britische Hymne ‘God save the Queen’ erinnert, elf Charakterstücke folgen lässt. Über das Datum der Uraufführung scheint nichts bekannt zu sein. Immerhin brachte es das deutsche Busch-Quartett bei einem Konzert in Oxford 1935 dem britischen Publikum näher, wie ein zeitgenössischer Kritiker unter Hinweis auf die britische Vernachlässigung eigener Komponisten dankbar bemerkte. Zwar bietet der Booklettext von P. R. Shore umfangreiche Informationen zum Leben Toveys und sogar Notenbeispiele zu den eingespielten Werken, über etwas mehr Hintergründe zur Entstehung der Stücke und ihre Wirkung hätten sich Hörer und Leser aber sicher gefreut. Bezieht das Thema der Aria seine Attraktivität hauptsächlich aus den unregelmäßig langen Phrasen, die sich zu einer quasi unendlichen Melodie aneinanderreihen, so ist das melodische Material allerdings zu dürftig, um den halbstündigen Bogen des Werkes füllen zu können. In ziemlich traditioneller romantischer Harmonik, entstehen zwar immer wieder schöne Momente, insgesamt ermüdet das Stück den Hörer aber doch durch seine Eintönigkeit. Dabei versucht das britische Tippett Quartet durchaus engagiert und fast immer souverän, dem Stück etwas abzugewinnen.
Auch das 1909 komponierte Quartett G-Dur op.23 bewegt sich harmonisch in einem eher rückwärts gewandten Rahmen und wirkt mit seinen oft in Terzen oder Sexten geführten Violinen zeitweise kitschig. Ähnlich wie in den Variationen ist zwar stets der raffinierte Kontrapunktiker Tovey zu hören. Das melodische Material ist aber nicht sehr einfallsreich, so dass die vielen Fugati und Kanons ziemlich blutleer klingen. Vernachlässigt man die Zeit des Entstehens des Quartetts und die damit verbundenen Erwartungen an solch ein Werk, so gibt es auch in diesem Quartett immer wieder überraschend schöne Stellen, die dann aber wieder mit sehr einfachen Figuren abgeschlossen oder kombiniert werden, die zum einen gewollt und andererseits einfallslos wirken. Lediglich im vierten und letzten Satz des Quartetts wird Toveys Stil moderner mit Anklängen an impressionistische Klangflächen und -verbindungen.
So bekannt und bedeutend Tovey vor allem in Großbritannien mit seinen ‚Essays in Musical Analysis‘ auch war, die er als Begleittexte zu den Konzerten des von ihm gegründeten und dirigierten Reid Symphony Orchestra schrieb, so zeigt die Aufnahme doch deutlich, dass ein großer Musiktheoretiker nicht automatisch auch ein guter Tonsetzer sein muss. Trotzdem ist diese Einspielung ein wertvoller Beitrag zur nicht sehr bekannten Streichquartettgeschichte in England, die im 20. Jahrhundert doch noch so wichtige Werke wie die Streichquartette B. Brittens oder des Namenspatrons des Quartetts M. Tippett dem Repertoire der Gattung hinzufügen sollte. Wir dürfen gespannt sein, ob das Tippett Quartet auch noch Toveys zweites Streichquartett op.24 einspielen wird, das Schwesterwerk des hier vorliegenden op.23.
MusicWeb International February 2011
The music of Donald Tovey never ceases to amaze me. Firstly, if you had asked me a few years ago about Mr. Tovey, I would have answered that he was a fine musicologist who had occupied the Reid Professorship at Edinburgh University. I would have pointed out that he is best remembered for his massive series of Essays in Musical Analysis. I wrote a thumbnail sketch of his life and work in a recent review, however it is important to reiterate one fact: Tovey believed that making music was the most important thing in his life – to this end he worked as a conductor, a pianist, an editor, a writer, a broadcaster, a scholar, a teacher and last but certainly no means least, as a composer. The music presented on this present CD is superb. I can hardly begin to imagine how it has lain undiscovered and un-played for so many years. Over the last five or so years there have been a number of CDs released of his music. In fact there has been a veritable explosion of interest with the way being led by Toccata Records. It is possible to listen to his Symphony, his Piano and Cello Concertos, extracts from his major opera The Bride of Dionysus (Dutton Epoch) and the attractive Air for Strings. However it is in the field of chamber music that most activity appears to have been concentrated. In 1995 Marco Polo released the Sonata for cello and piano in F major alongside the Variations for the same combination. Three years ago Toccata produced a fine CD of the Piano Trios in B minor and C minor. Last year Guild released the Aria and Variations for String Quartet in B flat major Op.11 and the Quartet for Strings in G major, Op.23: this was well received by the musical press. The Piano Trio in D major, Op.27 was composed in 1910 and was given its first performance in the following year. It is a work with which I felt I could immediately do business. The whole mood of this first movement can be described as ‘open-air’ and is well reflected in the ‘allegro con brio’ direction on the first page of the score. However, it is not all fun and laughter: there are moments of rest and contemplation provided by the second subject. There are times here when this music approaches the musical work of Edward Elgar, although it never really declares itself as British piece of music. The second movement is signed ‘larghetto maestoso’ and is really in the form of a rhapsody – at least the various instrumentalists appear to rhapsodise as the music unfolds. However, there is a new theme introduced towards the end of the movement which is really a touch of genius. This beautiful movement slowly dies away into nothing. The final movement has all the excitement and rhythmic vitality of a trip on the railway. The programme notes point out that Tovey travelled extensively by rail over his lifetime, and this would have involved steam locomotives. Certainly this is one of the best (and unsung) ‘railway pieces’ in the repertoire. Two things to bear in mind. This is a reasonably relaxed journey – possibly to a market town or the seaside rather than to Glasgow or Manchester. And secondly, I have no doubt that Tovey did not intend to make this into a miniature ‘tone poem’ for rail enthusiasts, but it is just the sort of piece that could (just about) be excerpted on Classic FM and would allow a whole range of new listeners to be introduced to this fine composer. This last movement along with the rest of the piece is a great and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Donald Tovey’s chamber music. The greatest revelation on this CD is surely the fine Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29. This work was composed the year before the Great War, in 1913 and was dedicated to Tovey’s friend, the violinist Adolf Busch. I have not seen the score of this work, but even on first hearing it is clear that this is a piece that is full of technical difficulties for the soloist. However, this observation needs further consideration. In spite of a plethora of complex technical effects it remains a viable piece of music. This is not a study designed to help the player play better. It is not a Sonata that has been evacuated of a satisfying musical experience in favour of a concatenation of exercises that sound impressive but is devoid of inspiration and fails to move the listener. It is a challenging and often moving masterpiece. It is cast in four movements with the scherzo placed second. The opening movement is in sonata-form with an introduction that immediately defines the relevance of the work’s title. The slow movement is particularly attractive and is ‘an extremely beautiful and evocative reminder of a more relaxed and thoughtful era.’ The finale is a tour de force that requires huge skill from the soloist with considerable contrapuntal development requiring two completely different styles of ‘melody’ playing at the same time. I cannot play the violin, but I was left speechless by the technical complexity of this movement. As to what the music sounds like it is actually quite hard to pin down. There are moments of Bach, and perhaps not surprisingly, echoes of Paganini: the programme notes suggest the Ysaye’s solo sonatas, but I am not familiar with these. Certainly there is nothing here that nods to ‘modern’ developments on the Continent or to the English Musical Renaissance. Like much of Sir Donald Tovey’s music it is most certainly ‘retro’ but this does not mean that it is pastiche of anyone else. The Piano Quartet in E minor, Op.12 is an important and impressive work by any standard. It was composed in 1900 and was dedicated to Harold Joachim who had been one of Tovey’s tutors at Balliol College. This is big music that is fairly and squarely in the late-romantic tradition. Although ostensibly cast in two large-scale movements the sheer variety of tempi and musical material make it seem like more! The opening movement is again in sonata-form and explores a number of virile themes, yet there are plenty of introspective moments in this music that allow the players and listeners to relax. The ‘finale’ opens with a lovely solo cello melody played ‘largo.’ This is then expanded by the viola before the ‘formal’ structure changes from a song to a chaconne. This is beautiful stately music that is both valedictory and reflective. Then the musical mood changes to ‘energico’: the spell is broken for a space. Yet the music never becomes flamboyant: there is a sense of melancholy which pervades the entire proceedings. Eventually the dreamlike mood returns for the conclusion of this movement. As the liner-notes point out ‘the piano floats away in a mist…into the arms or Morpheus’. This is truly gorgeous music. I guess that the range of classical music from Bach to Brahms along with Stanford and Parry are the key influences in this work as in much of Tovey’s music. Certainly he seems to look more towards Germany than to his native heath. Yet it is not so much influences as the final results that matter. Tovey has managed to compose a corpus of music that is beholden to the past, but is new, fresh and imaginative: he has made this style of music his own. Finally and most of all it impresses and moves the listener. Peter R. Shore provides a detailed introduction to the composer and, along with the violinist Robert Atchison, a set of reasonable programme notes for each work, although a little bit more detail on the history and reception of each work would have been welcome. And I wonder what ‘pedel’ tone is in the E minor Quartet! I was impressed by the playing of all the musicians on this CD, but special mention has to go to the aforementioned Mr. Atchison for his stunning performance of the massive Sonata Eroica. This is surely a major triumph in the history of recording of British music. I am not usually a fan of ‘solo’ violin, but this work ‘blew me away’. Yet the entire CD is a testament to the interest being shown in so called ‘forgotten’ composers. Fortunately there remains a deal of Sir Donald Tovey’s music still to be released. It is with considerable expectation that I await the next volume of chamber works from Guild. Perhaps, as I suggested in a previous reviews, they will record the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed)?
A testament to the interest being shown in so called ‘forgotten’ composers.