Smyth cello SRCD412

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.5 (1887)
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Cello Sonata (1916)
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960)
Cello Sonata in E minor, Op.132 (1951)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Cello Sonata in C, Op.65 (1961)
Lionel Handy (cello)
Jennifer Hughes (piano)
rec. 2021, Winchester College, UK
LYRITA SRCD.412 [67]

The latest volume in Lyrita’s series of British cello works looks set to rival the Watkins brothers’ Chandos edition, which thus far has reached four volumes. There are, though, subtle differences. Smyth doesn’t feature on Chandos but she does in this series and so does Armstrong Gibbs, so divergent repertoire offers opportunities to stake an individual slant on the British cello sonata repertoire. The first Lyrita volume contained sonatas by Ireland, Delius (the Third Violin Sonata in arrangement for cello) and Bax (review) whilst the second was an all-female affair containing Smyth’s 1880 sonata, Elisabeth Lutyens’ Nine Bagatelles, Elizabeth Maconchy’s Divertimento, and Rebecca Clarke’s Rhapsody (review). Handy has also recorded the cello concertos of Stanley Bate and Bax (review) for Lyrita.

He revisits Ethel Smyth’s Leipzig and post-Leipzig penchant for chamber-scaled works in her 1887 Sonata in A minor. This has been recorded by Friedemann Kupsa and Céline Dutilly on Troubadisc TRO-CD03 in a trailblazing edition, in four volumes, of her chamber music and songs (review ̴̴̴̴ review). It’s an expert three movement work, though conventional to a fault and at its most persuasive in the central slow movement where a veiled expressive tension gives it a certain quiet distinction. The piano leads in the finale, as often as not, in a kind of Tarantella complete with a luxuriously contrastive B section. Handy is somewhat warmer tonally than Kupsa and I think it’s Troubadisc’s recorded sound that means that Dutilly sounds crisper than Jennifer Hughes.

Delius’ Sonata can take a variety of approaches, from the authentic, stylistically apropos Beatrice Harrison who was, after all, the dedicatee and whose recording with Harold Craxton clocks in at 12:50, to the leisurely Julian Lloyd-Webber and Eric Fenby who take 15:15. As Delius’ amanuensis Fenby must be respected and, as his recordings of the violin sonatas with Ralph Holmes show, he could get around the keyboard so he clearly wasn’t slow because of technical limitations. The consensus however is a faster tempo and I like the Handy-Hughes approach – which turns out to be the same tempo as the Watkins Bros took – for its fluidity, flexibility, rapport and fine turns of phrase. However, Paul Watkins proves fractionally the more secure player.

Armstrong Gibbs’s sonata dates from 1951. It has attractive themes and a certain Delian ease of utterance but more in the way of structural rigour. The slow movement is based on his attractive 1927 song ‘Resting’ – Gibbs is clearly best known as a song composer – and the finale is a confident, clean cut and open air one marked ‘Broadly’. I’ve not come across another recording of this sonata which makes it the more attractive for lovers of British music. In any case it’s played with real commitment and elegance. The final piece is Britten’s Sonata in C of 1961. Quite rightly, a number of duos diverge somewhat from the famous Rostropovich-Britten recording – in recent years Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood, for example, are even faster – but Handy and Hughes adopt a series of tempos that accord and align closely with that famous Decca LP recording. Nothing wrong with that. This is a well characterised reading, committed, and generating impressive intensity in the Elegia in particular, though the Russian-sounding fourth movement dance is also attractively done.

There’s no doubting that the four sonatas make an uneven quartet in terms of inspiration but that’s part of the attraction of a selection such as this. The Smyth sonata is rare to find and the Gibbs exceptionally so, which gives this disc cachet, as does the recorded sound, notes and good performances.

Jonathan Woolf

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