Mstation Classical Reviews

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Mon, 30 May 2005

Romantic Violin

The Romantic Violin Concerto - 5
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor	Violin Concerto in G minor Op.80 [31.55]
Sir Arthur Somervell		Violin Concerto in G minor [32.59]
Anthony Marwood - violin
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martin Brabbins

Recorded in Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland on 24 and 25 
February 2004
HYPERION CDA67420 [65.00]

Hyperion's lovely series of lesser known Romantic Violin Concertos comes to England with volume five and presents works by two very different composers, both of whom have reputations far smaller than their music suggests that they deserve.

Coleridge-Taylor is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical figures of his time. Born in Croydon in 1875 his mother was English and his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. His father returned to his native land when Samuel was young and his mother remarried. He thus grew up in late Victorian England as the most unusual phenomenon, a black child of a white family. One might think that this would have been some problem in the racial climate of the time. Instead, Coleridge-Taylor was rapidly spotted as musically talented and studied the violin and sang in local church choirs. Taken up by a local benefactor, Colonel Walters, he studied violin at the Royal College of Music, later becoming a favourite student of no less than Stanford - that bastion of the compositional establishment. By the time Coleridge-Taylor was 20, Stanford had taken his Clarinet Quintet to show to Joachim in Berlin. Elgar commissioned Coleridge-Taylor to compose a work for the 1898 Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. The appearance of a black composer in the cathedral gained a most cordial reception and wide press coverage. Success followed success, with prominent visits to the USA in the last two years of his life. Unfortunately he did not survive a bout of pneumonia and died in 1912 aged only 37.

The violin concerto was Coleridge-Taylor's last major work, receiving its premiere five weeks after his death. Although well received both in England and the USA, it was rapidly and inexplicably forgotten, and only revived in 1980 in a concert to mark the centenary of the Guildhall School of Music, where Coleridge-Taylor had taught. A large scale, classically inspired work, it is quite incredible that there is no regular place in the repertoire for this concerto. Full of genial themes and imaginative episodic writing, it here receives a glowing testament of a performance from Anthony Marwood and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The violin is handled as a melodic instrument par excellence and carefully balanced against the orchestra. No particularly prominent fireworks, but a serious-minded work given a completely convincing performance.

In contrast to Coleridge-Taylor's exoticism and popularity but constant financial difficulty (not helped by selling the copyright of his cantata Hiawatha for #15 outright, unrealising that it would go on to sell over 140,000 copies before the First World War) Sir Arthur Somervell spent his career as a respected senior civil servant, composing in his spare time, and living comfortably in a large house in Kensington Square, near to Sir Hubert Parry. His violin concerto was written in 1930 and is resolutely romantic in spirit. It was well received and had numerous performances around England through the 1930's before, like the Coleridge-Taylor, being inexplicably forgotten. This recording is the first time it has been heard in more than half a century.

Again, this is such a shame. A mighty first movement nearly 20 minutes long shows Somervell as quite capable of serious development and sustained symphonic thought. A graceful adagio follows, contrasting the violin in its most elegiac mood with rich string and solemn wind/brass passages. This is distinctly English music, but not overloaded with resonances of Elgar. There is a distinctive voice here and considerable technical accomplishment in the composition. The finale is a bucolic dance with echoes of the finale of Mendelssohn's concerto. Tovey described this movement as "the orchestra seeming to stretch itself in a slow yawn while the solo violin blows smoke-rings" and this sense of ease is prominent on this recording.

Hyperion is clearly onto a winner here. Marwood's affinity with this music, and Brabbins' convincing marshalling of the orchestra serve these neglected works well. This is a beautifully made disc, and with any luck, it might push these great concerti back onto the concert platform. Any audience should be thankful for the experience if that happens.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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