Take one motivated and talented young British violinist, inspired by the solo violin music of JS Bach, and mix with some of the best British composing talent of today and the result is: Fenella Humpreys Bach 2 the Future.
Fenella Humphreys came to performing Bach's masterpieces in their complete form relatively recently, but was frustrated by a lack of solo works to perform alongside them.
A Kickstarter and remarkable fundraising drive ensued, and Fenella has been able to commission works from Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse and Piers Hellawell which appear on this new disc. It also includes 'Bumblebees' by Cyril Scott (d 1970)
These new piece echo and reflect Bach's E major partita, Ysaye's Sonata No 2, Biber's Passacaglia from the Rosenkranz Sonata.
Gordon Crosse's 'Orkney Dreaming' has a particular resonance for Fenella as it's where she conceived the project.
Fenella has commissioned another three works, to be premiered live in Summer 2015, from Sir Maxwell Davies, Sally Beamish and Adrian Sutton, available now on the second volume (available now).
Her busy schedule sees her performing premieres at Aldeburgh, Presteigne and St Magnus Festivals, and across the UK.
'a golden tone in all registers with the utmost sensitivity to where every phrase is moving' - The Strad Magazine
If Bach is the presiding spirit in this recording, the variety and invention of the entire sequence is equally an homage to the idea of counterpoint (and invention in general) and, at the same time, to the huge expressive and technical capacities of the solo violin. The three British composers whose music is featured wrote their works as part of the 'Bach to the Future' project set up by Fenella Humphreys, which has commissioned six composers to write new pieces to be premièred during 2014 and 2015.
It is Bach, therefore, who begins the proceedings. His Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006, is the last in the set of works now known as the Six Sonatas and Partitas, but originally called Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato Libro Primo, written by 1720 in Cöthen, but not published until 1802, twelve years after the composer's death.
The third Partita is probably the best known of the set, its tone set by the shining opening Preludio, characterized by almost constant strings of semiquavers. This is followed by a majestic Loure, a slow French dance also known as a gigue lente, characterised by dotted rhythms, and then a Gavotte en rondeau, in which Bach turns the first part of the normally binary gigue into a refrain (and a very memorable one). There are two Menuet, the first gentle and elegant, the second more rustic, making reference to drones. The final two dances are a Bourrée and a Gigue, the former a lively, syncopated piece, and the latter a flowing, binary form dance of Italian rather than French style.
The only composer featured on this recording to have lived earlier than Bach is Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. He was born just over 40 years before Bach, in fact, and enormously expanded the possibilities of the solo violin, thanks to his own extraordinary technique. The collection of Rosenkranz Sonatas, also known as the Rosary or Mystery Sonatas, was written in about 1676, in honour of the 15 Mysteries of the Virgin Rosary. There are sixteen of these sonatas, for violin and harpsichord, but the set ends with an extraordinary unaccompanied Passacaglia in G minor, the only movement except the first to use the instrument's standard tuning. Biber was particularly interested in the effects of scordatura, whereby the violin is tuned differently and consequently produces different chords and timbres from those arising from the standard tuning. The Passacaglia has been considered, with justice, to be the most outstanding work for solo violin before the Bach Chaconne, and is a tour de force, showing not only Biber's capacity for rich melodic invention over a constantly repeating bass, but his interest in virtuosic polyphonic writing for the instrument.
Eugéne Ysaÿe, the Belgian composer, was also renowned as a violin virtuoso. His Six Sonatas were each dedicated to a contemporary violinist; the second was for Jacques Thibaud, a friend whom he greatly admired (the others were dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga).
The Sonata opens with a remarkable movement entitled Obsession, which establishes an absolutely direct link to Bach, by quoting from the Prelude of the third Partita, and also quotes from the Dies irae chant from the Requiem Mass; 'obsessive' is precisely the word to describe the music's manic character. It is followed by Malinconia, a slower, simpler movement whose yearning melodic line perfectly suggests the melancholy of its title. The Dies irae returns again as the basis for the theme of the Sarabande, which is constructed as a set of six highly characterised variations, with the theme first announced by the violin playing pizzicato. The colourful final movement, Les Furies, which has recourse to the Dies irae chant throughout, suggests, perhaps, a furious rant against death, though the conclusiveness of the final cadence would indicate that there is little to be done
Cyril Scott, born 21 years after Ysaÿe, was a prolific and inventive composer. He studied, at the end of the 19th century, at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt-am- Main with Iwan Knorr (1853'1916), and together with his fellow students Henry Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger, Roger Quilter and Norman O'Neill, made up what was known as the Frankfurt Group. Eugene Goossens described him as 'the father of modern British music'. Though for a time unremarked, his music has been substantially rediscovered in recent years. His brief solo violin work, Bumblebees (or Die Hummein in German) was published in 1928 by Schott, and dedicated to May Harrison. It is in some ways comparable in intention to the famous Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov, but cleverly suggests the presence of more than one bee by the use of double-stopping.
Gordon Crosse's Orkney Dreaming is a simultaneous homage to Bach and to Orkney. It is not obsessive in the way that Ysaÿe is, but Crosse says of the work that he 'thought about (dreamed about) Bach all the time as the islands worked their friendly magic', and mentions too the Bachian structure of the work, which was begun before he had actually visited the islands, which contradicted his previously-formed image of them, with their 'sweet green fertility and a landscape which gave one space but never left one feeling lonely or abandoned.' There is certainly a dreamy quality to the first movement, Moderato, which is dispelled as though by a refreshing gust of wind by the following Fugue. The Andante is ruminative, but more 'anchored' than the Moderato, and the final Allegro is a proper dance, perhaps what Bach might have written if he had wanted to compose a Scottish Pastoral.
Bachian characteristics are also to be found in some sense in Balcony Scenes by Piers Hellawell, which were written for Fenella Humphreys in 2014 and which are, so to speak, an examination of the idea of counterpoint, or dialogue. The work consists of two fantasias and two bicinia. Bicinium denotes a two-part contrapuntal passage (it is most frequently associated, at least by students of counterpoint, with Lassus), and here Hellawell exploits the dialogue between lower and upper (balcony) levels that gives the set its name. The Fantasias try, says the composer, 'to maximize the register contrasts within the violin and, even, sometimes, to create the idea of a 'bass register' for the instrument'. He also notes that the 'opening gesture of Fantasia I, which recurs to open Fantasia II, spells out the name 'Fenella''.
The youngest composer represented on this disc, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, wrote her Suite No.1 in direct response to Bach's Partita No.3. She says of it, 'rather than base my work on any specific motives or harmonies, I simply listened and listened to the Bach, identified what really appealed to me, then tried to forget Bach's music and write a work which had similar feelings, melodic shapes and moods, or that employed a similar striking violin technique (for example)'. These connections take different forms, and, as the composer suggests, are not generally really identifiable with specific aspects of the Bach, with a few exceptions, such as the use of the E string in the opening Adagietto, and the use of the drone, in the Allegro molto, referring to the brief appearance of a drone in the second of Bach's Menuets.