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 the works that appear on this CD by Adrian Sutton, Peter Maxwell Davies and Sally Beamish (the first volume included works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Gordon Crosse and Piers Hellawell).
Bridging the connection Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 and the new commissions are three iconic works for solo violin – Ysaÿe’s Sonata in D Minor, Op. 27 No. 3 ‘Ballade’, Stravinsky’s Élégie and Sibelius’s En glad muiskant, JS40.
This second disc of music from the Bach to the Future project set up Fenella Humphreys contains three further new works for solo violin by British composers, together with a further sonata by the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe and two brief works by Sibelius and Stravinsky, all placed within the context of Bach's magisterial Sonata no. 3 in C major.
In the spirit of Bach, all of the works on this recording address in some way the question of counterpoint, whether explicitly or implicitly. Adrian Sutton's Arpeggiare Variations (2015) are an exploration of the possibilities of the arpeggio. This gesture, so natural to the violin and so characteristic of much of its literature, whether “erudite” or popular, forms the basis of what is really a set of variations. The theme, arpeggiated naturally, is taken on a series of “journeys” which not only endeavour to seek out every expressive and constructional possibility of the arpeggio, but suggets points of contact with other music. Bach is certainly present in the deft homage to him by Sutton's contrapuntal skill; there is also a stylization of a tarantella that vividly suggests the dizzy twirling of the dancer until she falls to exhaustion, while the meditative “Lento” covers a wide range of expressive territory, from barcarolle-like reminsicences to a cadenza, and fragments of contrapuntal dialogue. With the “Ritorno” equilibrium is restored, and the arpeggio comes to rest.
Ysaÿe's Six Sonatas were composed for six contemporary violin virtuosos, and the revived the idea of writing polyphonically for the solo violin, in addition to exploiting to the maximum the instrument's expressive capacity. The third was dedicated to the Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enescu, the others being written for Jacques Thibaud, Joseph Szigeti, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga. The composer was inspired to write these works after hearing Szigeti playing Bach's G minor Sonata for solo violin, with the idea of making use of all the huge range of technical possibilities of the instrument in the interests of poetic expression. In the magnificent Sonata no. 3, subtitled “Ballade” Ysaÿe wrote a work that sounds like a continues narrative thread, but a thread that follows a journey of completely unexpected twists and turns. Notionally in D minor, the composer's pervasive use of chromaticism and inverted chords frequently suspends any sense of being anchored to a particular tonality. It is also rhythmically very rich and unpredictable (there is a substantial stretch of 5/4 time, for example, and use of quintuplets and septuplets), and Ysaÿe loses no opportunity to exploits the violin's contrapuntal possibilities.
While counterpoint also naturally abounds in the Fugue from Sally Beamish's Intrada e Fuga, the kernel of the work is the folk-inflected material built gradually up from the intense oscillation around one note – a very high A – with which the Intrada begins, and which returns at the end of the Fugue. Its drone-accompanied style suggests the Hardanger fiddle music of Norway: the composer notes that she had been listening to the fiddle playing of Nils Økland, and points out the appropriateness of this connection given that the work's first performance would take place in the Norwegian-built St Magnus Cathedral, in Orkney. Indeed, Beamish's music in general has many connections with the cultures of northern Europe. The Fugue itself is dance-like to begin with, but over the course of the development of the fugal dialogue it contains many changes of atmosphere; it also makes considerable use of harmonics, and triple and quadruple-stopping. Beamish says that is is directly inspired by the Bach Fugue, “using the same time signature at the outset, and similar motifs. I wanted to set myself a compositional challenge, and chose a 3-voice fugue, as Bach did, using inversion, augmentation, and other fugal devices. After a virtuosic climax, the music of the Intrada returns, fading into the silence from which it emerged. This last statement of the opening theme is in retrograde – ie played backwards.”
The set of works by Bach now known as the “Six Sonatas and Partitas”, but originally called “Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato Libro Primo”, was written by 1720 in Cöthen, but not published until 1802, by Simrock, twelve years after the composer’s death. The third Sonata, in C major, BWV 1005, is a four movement work whose centre is one of the most remarkable fugues in history. The opening Adagio is effectively a prelude for the fugue that follows, characterized by a persistent dotted pattern that concentrates attention on the movement's extraordinary richness of texture; the Fugue itself, one of the longest and most complex of any of Bach's fugues, is built on the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, with a descending chromatic line as a countersubject. At approximately the halfway point, however, Bach writes “al reverso”, and both subject and countersubject are heard as an inverted palindrome, the countersubject climbing instead of descending. The opening fugue is recapitulated to form an architecturally perfect intellectual and musical behemoth. The Largo that follows is utterly different, a reflective two-voiced movement of sustained lyricism, and this massive Sonata ends with a flowing Allegro assai that, while spun from a single, scale-like motif, is full of implicit part-writing such that the listener seems to hear a two or even three-way “conversation”.
The Sonatina for Violin Alone by the later Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in 2015 is specifically modelled on the Bach C major Sonata. There is nothing remotely “neo-baroque” about the work, however; while it reworks certain gestures from the Bach (obvious from the reference to the dotted rhythms of Bach's Adagio at the very opening), it does so very audibly in Davies's own musical language – as was always the case with his frequent references to the music of the past – and within the context of a reflective, predominantly melancholy narrative. The work is dedicated to the memory of Jack Rendall.
Stravinsky's Elegy (Élégie) was written in 1944, and bears the inscription “composée à l'intention de Germain Prévost, pour être jouée à la mémoire de Alphonse Onnou fondator du Quatuor Pro Arte”. Onnou had begun the famous Quartet, which exists to this day, in 1912, and was its first violinist until his death. The Elegy is a beautiful and mournful – even anguished – tribute, cast in three sections, the second of which suggests a fugue, by means of implied part-writing. The violinist plays with a mute throughout. Apparently a complete contrast, Sibelius's En glad musikant (“A happy musician”) is in fact another example of extreme economy hiding complexity. Written in 1924-5, it is a song-like piece with subtle decorative touches and making use of double-stopping throughout. Written above the notes in the manuscript is a poem by the Swedish composer Ture Rangström (1884-1947), who was profoundly inspired by Sibelius's work.
"It's not often you can say that a commission ... fills a genuine hole in the repertoire. However, that's precisely what Fenella Humphreys has bestowed upon the musical world..."
"Humphreys' commissions are excitingly fresh with their all-British focus..."
"...the main take-home point is that every single one of the six [new commissions] is a glorious new addition to the solo violin repertoire."
"Humphreys' utter absorption and delight in all three shines forth at every turn ... strong-toned, easy fluidity and immaculate technique."
"Both volumes will be making frequent returns to my stereo... the new works themselves deserve long wider performance lives beyond this beautiful beginning." - Charlotte Gardner, Gramophone
"Last year, I enthusiastically welcomed this project's first volume. This sequel is also impressive, both in the quality of the playing and the variety of music."
"...[Humphreys] yields nothing to the finest recordings on her accuracy and passion, the recording capturing the full range of her tone in a rich but not over-resonant acoustic." - Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine
"Fenella Humphreys has again shown that she is an exceptional violinist with rare musicianship, a perfect technique and a beautiful tone."
"Humphreys again shows that she is a very thoughtful interpreter ... She also plays the Stravinsky Elegy better than I have ever heard before." - American Record Guide