Acclaim for Victorian Sonatas
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE
Ashton: Cello Sonata 2;
LIDDLE: Sonata; Elegy;
STANFORD: Sonata 2
Simon Fryer; Leslie De'Ath, piano
Centaur 3216 -77 minutes
There's a good deal of new material here, all of it from the late romantic era in England. Algernon Ashton (1859-1937) was born in Durham but grew up in Leipzig. Although he returned to Westminster in 1881 and lived there for the rest of his life, teaching piano and, later, composition at the Royal Academy of Music and the London College of Music, his compositions never made a major splash, though there are 174 opus numbers. Judging by his cello music, they are well worth exploring. He was a man with a sense of humor and a clever mind. These pieces are imaginative, with original touches in his treatment of the formal structure. I might have ended by blaming Ashton for not always holding my attention, but after hearing Fryer and De'Ath in Sonata 2, it is clear that they are on the ball technically. Ashton’s music tends to be very active and rhythmically complex, and one needs to play it with both clarity and virtuosity for it to make its points. The music is well worth hearing. Samuel Liddle (1867-1951) is another first time recording. He studied with Stanford, whose Sonata 2 was written in the same year, 1889. Like the Ashton works, Liddle’s sonata is witty and demanding of both players. His Elegy is a lovely piece also. According to the liner notes, the sonata is the largest piece we have by this composer. It is another fine work by another composer we should hear more of. Centaur misleads us about the timings of Liddle’s music. The timing for the Elegy is actually the time of the first movement of the sonata, and all the other Liddle timings need to be pushed down one line. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is well known. This Sonata 2 (Op.39) is a grander work than the ones by Ashton and Liddle, as one might expect – not longer but more immediately memorable. Instead of playing games with the formal structure like the other composers, Stanford sticks closer to the rules, mainly because that is how he feels the music. There has been one other recording of this work, by Julian Lloyd Webber and John McCabe (ASV 807, not reviewed), but it appeared back in 1992 so probably is hard to find. It included the sonata by John Ireland and an Elegy and Scherzetto by Frank Bridge. The Centaur players are fine, so if the present program interests you, you are in good hands.
Cellist Simon Fryer teams up with pianist Leslie De’Ath on a fascinating CD of Victorian Cello Sonatas on the independent American label Centaur Records (CRC 3216). The composers Algernon Ashton and Samuel Liddle are probably new to you — they certainly were to me — but they are representative of that generation of late 19th century English composers whose style went out of fashion in the years before the Great War, and whose works virtually disappeared from the repertoire. Not surprisingly, their works here — Ashton’s Sonata No.2 in G Major from 1882 and Liddle’s Sonata in E-Flat Major and his Elegy from 1889 and 1900 respectively — are world premiere recordings; the Sonata No.2 in D Minor, Op.39 by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford completes the recital.
The previously unknown Liddle sonata was discovered by De’Ath in the course of his hobby of collecting musical documents and ephemera. The predominant influence seems to be German, especially the music of Mendelssohn and Brahms, but that’s hardly surprising, given the musical connections between the two countries in Victorian times. Ashton’s music, although scarcely acknowledged at home, was widely published in Germany, where he had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory; Liddle and Stanford also studied in Leipzig during the late 1870s, as had Arthur Sullivan some 20 years earlier.
While the Stanford sonata may be the stronger work, there is a great deal of worthwhile and highly attractive music here, clearly the work of competent and imaginative craftsmen. Fryer and De’Ath certainly present a persuasive case for the pieces, surmounting the often formidable technical challenges with expansive playing that never resorts to overly Romantic indulgence. Fryer’s tone in the lower register is particularly lovely.
Sometimes, admittedly, works do remain buried or neglected for good reasons, but CDs like this one remind us just how rewarding it can be to take the path less trodden.