British Violin Sonatas, Vol. 1 / Little, Lane

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FERGUSON Violin Sonata No. 2. BRITTEN Suite for Violin and Piano. WALTON Violin Sonata. Two Pieces for Violin and Piano Tasmin Little (vn); Piers Lane (pn) CHANDOS 10770 (61:39)

Here we have the first in a series of British works for violin and piano. Presumably all will feature the excellent team of violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane. They are a team in the true sense of the word: Lane well known for his sensitive work in chamber music (he curates and performs in an annual chamber music festival in Townsville, Northern Australia), and Little highly regarded for her performances of British music. Full marks to them for not calling themselves the Little Lane Duo. The series gets off to a fine start with this diverse program of rarely heard and stylistically contrasting works.

The Suite for Violin and Piano op. 6 is among Britten’s earliest pieces (post-juvenilia), when the composer was consciously following continental trends. Its five movements include stylistic pastiches such as a march, a moto perpetuo, and a concluding waltz. Two years later Britten would revisit these forms with even more assurance in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra. The piano part in these short pieces is brilliant (as in the composer’s Piano Concerto, another early work), and very French in places; the ghost of Debussy is present in the rippling arpeggios accompanying quiet sections of the finale. In the 1930s Britten’s music was regarded as superficial—playfulness being a quality that sat uneasily with English composers—but the main attribute of this music is its focus. Britten knew what he wanted to say and employed the most precise means with which to say it. This never changed throughout his career, although his aims obviously did. Little brings an equal precision and poise to her playing of the gentle Lullaby that forms the fourth movement, and both musicians revel in the high spirits and punchy accents required elsewhere. Theirs is a performance that makes you wonder why the work is not played more frequently.

Walton’s days as an enfant terrible were over by the time of his Violin Sonata, which came a decade after the highly successful Violin Concerto of 1937. It is in two movements: the first, rhapsodic and lyrical; the second, a theme and variations—a form the composer increasingly turned to in his late music. Each variation in this movement is in a key a semitone higher than its predecessor. In both movements the writing is fulsome, certainly in comparison to Britten’s spare textures, with the violin part displaying yearning lines and wide intervallic leaps that recall the earlier concerto. The piano was not Walton’s instrument and he wrote little for it, yet its colors are effectively exploited in the variations, notably in the Fifth Variation ( Allegretto con moto ) where the keyboard plays in octaves in its high register against the violin’s pizzicato.

On a Chandos recording of Walton’s Violin Concerto the companion piece is an orchestral version of this Sonata, arranged by Christopher Palmer. Palmer’s recreation of the composer’s orchestral style is perfect, but Walton knew best: it is clearly music conceived for two instruments. Little and Lane’s performance leaves no doubt of that. They also unerringly tap the vein of nostalgia in the first of the Two Pieces, titled Canzonetta , and are suitably frisky in the concluding “Scherzetto.”

The disc opens with a major work by the rarely played Irish composer, Howard Ferguson (1908–1999). It was composed in 1946, as Walton was working slowly on his own Sonata. Ferguson was even more meticulous; he later abandoned composition altogether, so out of touch did he feel with the Modernist wave of the 1950s and 60s. His Sonata No. 2 has a traditional three-movement structure, but again within that there is a tendency to rhapsodize. It takes a few hearings to recognize the economy of means that Ferguson uses as a basis for his emotionally charged music.The underlying tone is one of anxiety and sorrow—even anger in the tougher third movement—no doubt due to the work’s wartime provenance. Both musicians are securely on the composer’s wavelength.

I cannot praise Lane and Little highly enough. They face tough competition in the Walton: Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan recorded it, coupled with the sonata by Elgar, in 2001; Fanfare ’s Robert Maxham wrote that Hope’s “lyricism in the Walton has a strong, perhaps ironic, pungency.” The young Nigel Kennedy also recorded the piece, and there are older performances available by Aaron Rosand and Yehudi Menuhin. Competition is scarce in the other works. Lydia Mordkovitch taped Ferguson’s two violin sonatas for Chandos in the mid-1990s. I have not heard that disc but I tend to prefer Little to Mordkovitch in other repertoire (such as the Walton Concerto).

The version of Britten’s Suite in the newly released Decca Britten box is by LSO violinist Alexander Barantschik, taken from a single EMI disc of Britten’s chamber music from the mid-1990s. Barantschik’s performance also turns up in a recent EMI collection of Britten’s chamber music. Interestingly, his pianist is named as John Alley on the original release, but John Adey on both the reissue boxes. I presume this is a typographical error that neither EMI nor Universal picked up. Barantschik and Alley treat the Suite to a dry Stravinskian attack, making it sound even more starkly modern, and are recorded in a less resonant acoustic that suits their approach, but Little and Lane have great authority and their program is substantial. The new disc is strongly recommended, and promises much in the forthcoming issues from these fine artists.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHAN 10770

  • UPC: 095115177020

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: Benjamin Britten, Howard Ferguson, Sir William Walton

  • Performer: Piers Lane, Tasmin Little


  1. Sonata for Violin and Piano no 2, Op. 10

    Composer: Howard Ferguson

    Performer: Piers Lane (Piano), Tasmin Little (Violin)

  2. Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6

    Composer: Benjamin Britten

    Performer: Piers Lane (Piano), Tasmin Little (Violin)

  3. Sonata for Violin & Piano

    Composer: Sir William Walton

    Performer: Piers Lane (Piano), Tasmin Little (Violin)

  4. Pieces (2) for Violin and Piano

    Composer: Sir William Walton

    Performer: Piers Lane (Piano), Tasmin Little (Violin)