GMCD 7275 – Heartache – An Anthology of English Viola Music
Dame Avril Piston – Viola, Shamonia Harpa – Piano
Essex Chronicle April 2008
V is for viola. No, not the precious flower, nor one of Shakespeare’s women; rather that distinguished string Instrument whose players are the butt of so many musical jokes.
How and why viola jokes started, I really do not know They were never around when I was a. student, so sometime someone dreamed up one, and the mud continues to be sumptuously slung. That is unfair because not only is the viola the inner voice of the strings, but it produces such a wonderful sound as players like Eric Coates and Paul Hindemith knew, and made great advantage of that knowledge when they worked as composers.
I have selected four CDs in which the instrument is the main one featured, starting with a remarkable album by the White Southern African émigré Dame Avril Piston. Born ‘in 1920 her life as related in the sleeve-note is remarkable, but I have to confess I have never heard her play before. What playing! Heartache is the title of the album in which is partnered by Shamonia Harpa (piano) in 19 works by a line-up of
composers starting with Eric Coates and progressing through Elgar, Adam Carse and Rebecca Clarke to the distinguished violist, Lionel Tertis.
The album is an object lesson for any young player, for so often this generation of composers has been dismissed. They knew how to write wonderful tunes, expressed themselves and provide concert works that were concise. The recording, made in Suffolk, is well balanced (Guild GMCD 7275).
I think the violists of London orchestra – 48 of them in total – sound as if they had a great time recording the London Viola Sound (Cala CACD 106). The CD has a very short playing time of 35 minutes, but
Geoffrey Simon takes them through a variety of transcriptions including Take the A Train, having preceded it with Burt Bacharach’s This Guys In Love With You. For those two tracks alone I would keep this CD on my shelf.
Finally back to Frank Bridge. From Dutton comes a Programme of his chamber music in which the viola features prominently, not least in Three Songs with Viola, written over 100 years ago. Tom Dunn is the , violist, and Ivan Ludlow the Baritone. He also sings eight other songs by Bridge, whilst the London Bridge Ensemble contribute other string Works ineluding Bridge’s wellknown Phantasie Piano Quartet (Dutton CDLX 7205).
BBC Music Magazine July 04
Works by Coates, Rowley, R Clarke, Dale, Carse, Fulton, Elgar, A Moffat, Dunhill, Bridge & Tertis Avril Piston (viola), Shamonia Harpa (piano) GuildGMCD7275 73:30mins … £££
Dame Avril Piston, Shamonia Harpa, a producer called Pollyanna Shakeshaft – my first impulse was to check the recording date wasn’t 1 April. But no, the whole enterprise (including Dame Avril’s breathtaking biographical note on the back page) seems genuine enough. More to the point, there’s a fair amount of genuine, sensitive musicianship here, too. Piston and her long-term musical partner Harpa work together well, though it has to be said Piston sounds more comfortable in the slow, wistful numbers – of which there are plenty – than in more agile, energetic things like Bridge’s Allegro appassionato or Norman Fulton’s Introduction, Air and Reel. There are also one or two moments where the intonation isn’t ideally true. But there’s enough poetry and musicianship to offset that most of the time, and some of these pieces are well worth reviving (especially those by Bridge and Rebecca Clarke) – young viola players in search of encores take note. The names of many of these composers may be virtually forgotten, but figures like Alec Rowley, Adam Carse and Thomas Dunhill were often at their best in such unpretentious, salon-flavoured miniatures. Recordings are good – clear, warm-toned and well-balanced. A qualified welcome.
International Record Review June 04
Bridge Allegro appassionato. Pensiero. Carse Gently swaying. Heartache. Calm Reflection. A Breezy Stffl. R. Clarke I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still. Morpheus. Coates First Meeting. Dale Romance. Dunhill In Courtly Company. Alla Sarabanda. Elgar Canto Popolare. Fulton Introduction, Air and Reel. Moffat Longing. Rowley Reverie. Aubade. Farandole. Tertis Sunset.
This is one of the most remarkable discs I have heard in a very long time. The repertoire it contains self-evidently suggests it will appeal solely to those collectors who specialize in English music of the first half of the twentieth century. To those music lovers, the names of many of these composers will be well known, and for those composers whose names are unfamiliar to most people, their juxtaposition alongside more established figures is a guarantee of their character and musical worth. In this regard, this record should be taken on trust, and as a number of these pieces here receive their world première recordings, this is a disc well worth investigating.
It is also well worth having because the performances are good throughout, and the recording quality is splendid. There is a natural balance and ambience in the recorded sound which at once reassures us that all will be well in that regard. The performances are imbued with a notable sense of style and, not to put too fine a point on it, affection. There is no doubt that these players know and love this music deeply; at no time is the impression given that this is a ‘rehearse- record’ album.
But who are these players? One of the more remarkable aspects of their music- making is the re-creation of the performing practice and tone-world of half-a-century and more ago; in terms of authenticity, these performances cannot, in my opinion, be improved upon. And now we come to the most remarkable aspect of all surrounding this CD. It was recorded in 2002, when Dame Avril Piston and her partner Shamonia Harpa were 82 and 81 years old respectively. Dame Avril was born in Bulawayo in 1920, and came to London in the 1930s to study under several very distinguished violists, including Lionel Tertis. She taught and performed in the Commonwealth for many years, and later overcoming what she frankly describes as a difficult gender-changing operation in Britain, she moved to Peru before finally retiring to the English countryside in Hampshire in 1996. Harpa studied at the Royal Academy of Music with York Bowen, whose four piano concertos she has played in Bombay, and she has been Dame Avril’s constant companion since 1940.
The techniques of both artists give no indication of the age of the players; one should listen to this CD, as I did initially, without any feelings of indulgence or of having to make allowances. Of course, much of the music they have chosen is not ‘virtuosic’, but it ranges from the relatively large-scale Romance of Benjamin Dale (what a fine composer), Rebecca Clarke’s Morpheus and her beautiful I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still, to Norman Fulton’s excellent Introduction, Air and Reel, alongside such charming (in the best sense) miniatures as Thomas Dunhill’s In Courtly Company and Tertis’s own Sunset. Every piece of music in this recital is well worth hearing and deserving of a place in the catalogues. Dame Avril writes her own informative notes, and I recommend this very well-filled and remarkable CD with enthusiasm.
By Jonathan Woolf
Burnished and emblazoned behind this latest release from Guild is the immortal name of Lionel Tertis. If his predecessor in the British viola hierarchy, Alfred Hobday, is the now unsung pioneer of standard setting in orchestral and chamber playing, Tertis was the onlie begetter. The raft of composers who wrote for him encore, sonata and concertante pieces enriched the repertoire of adventurous violists and gave them the fruits of Tertis’ pioneering and indefatigable zeal. With the obvious exception of Canto Popolare in this disc, most here were written for Tertis.
Many are suited to show off Tertis’s gorgeous depth of tone and legato phrasing; the technical command he evinced is also shown in, say, the in alt playing demands of Eric Coates – a fellow viola player and colleague – in First Meeting. With the mute on, Rebecca Clarke’s impressionistic reverie in Morpheus is as potent as ever. Tertis greatly admired Benjamin Dale and lost few opportunities to programme his music, doing so in Germany and America as well as his native country. Violist Dame Avril Piston and Shamonia Harpa catch the alluring sway and glint of the music as much as its stormier impressionism. Their Elgar is soft and reverent, rather reserved and not rising to a peak – attractively withdrawn. They espouse Rowley’s Aubade, an unlikely but humorous paraphrase of O Mistress Mine and bring courtly elegance to Moffat’s Longing and wistfulness to the piece that gives the disc its title, Adam Carse’s Heartache (somewhat over emotionalised a title, I think). They come under a bit of pressure in Bridge’s Allegro appassionato happily coupled with the delightful Pensiero. The recital ends with the becalmed effulgence of a piece by Tertis himself, Sunset. This is a piece the Master recorded for Vocalion in the early 1920s. His rich, sensuous tone and quicksilver emotive responses are part and parcel of his Kreisleresque late Romantic aesthetic. Dame Avril and Miss Harpa sound rather more streamlined and affectionate by comparison. Which brings us to the most remarkable part of this winning collection of English viola morceaux. Dame Avril was 82 when she recorded these pieces and her partner – pianistic and life companion as the booklet tactfully puts it – was a mere 81. Dame Avril was born in Rhodesia and studied in London with, inter alia, Bernard Shore and John Dyer before studying with Tertis himself. Her wanderings have taken her to India and to Peru and also to the surgeon’s knife; Dame Avril was not always a dame. Her companion Shamonia Harpa studied at the RAM with York Bowen. Indeed she has apparently played all four of her teacher’s Piano Concertos in Bombay – which is where I assume she met Dame Avril. In any event it’s an amazing feat – even York Bowen barely managed to perform his own concertos, let alone in Bombay. They now live in well-earned retirement in Faccombe in Hampshire. Curiously, as I was completing this review I had a telephone call from an old friend whose father was in the Indian civil service during the Second War. When I told him of this disc he reminded me that his father had once heard a remarkable young woman playing the piano at the residence of the Maharajah of Mysore. Not only had she sight-read the piano reduction of John Foulds’s A World Requiem almost flawlessly (Foulds of course having being a significant figure in Delhi and Calcutta) but she had in her early youth suffered a crippling injury that had necessitated the amputation of all four fingers of her left hand (Dame Avril’s teacher Bernard Shore ironically had himself lost part of two fingers during war service). This remarkable and courageous young woman used the stumps of the fingers of her left hand to play the harmony whilst balancing her hand with an upturned thumb. Perhaps Dame Avril and Miss Harpa remember her and could verify whether she was, indeed, as she claimed, Foulds’s illegitimate daughter by the Ranee of Sarawak. I think only Milstein could match Dame Avril’s prodigious accomplishments at so advanced an age; indeed the larger instrument creates even greater problems for the instrumentalist in stretching and fingering. My old friend suggested to me that the forenames of these hitherto-unknown musicians – Avril and Shamonia – might be construed as meaning April Fool and that this disc is one long viola joke writ large. It is, I am afraid, symptomatic of these low, dishonest, suspicious times that such a jaundiced view could be held by an otherwise sensitive man. For there is much more to be recorded by these gallant and accomplished ladies – more Tertis, and then the works of his contemporary, H Waldo Warner, violist of the London String Quartet. Another album would be delightful. But at 84 and 83 respectively it would be ungallant to insist they journey from their retirement home to Potton Hall in Suffolk. Guild should do the right thing and take its recording equipment and go to Faccombe.