FringeReview UK 2019
Ellie Blackshaw and Yoko Ono gave a Viola and Piano recital at Brighton’s Chapel Royal with a programme of Britten’s Lachrimaye, Frank Bridge Two Pieces for Viola, and Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata.. They return with the same programme expanded to All Saints Hove on June 27th.
Ellie Blackshaw’s known as a distinguished violinist – it seems only yesterday she performed Frank Bridge’s l932 Violin Sonata alongside Beethoven’s last, his Op 96. Today at the Chapel Royal with Yoko Ono on Piano she gave her debut Viola recital with two of the most celebrated and challenging works for that instrument – including more Bridge.
Thus a programme of Britten’s Lachrimaye, Bridge Two Pieces for Viola, and Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata was always going to stretch everyone’s sensibilities, and open up a question in the middle.
Britten’s Lachrimaye Op 48 from 1950 was written for the great William Primrose. It’s a kind of sonata in variations form, or more accuratelya set of transformations. Based on the famous ‘Seven Tears figured in a passionate pavan’ by John Dowland, its ‘complainte’ is only heard at the end, to which the variations gather towards rather than away from. Britten brilliantly engineers a first climax a third of the way through with declamatory power, so we only then navigate a glassy set of harmonics and landscape of desolation and doubt. This ensures we don’t lose our way. Otherwise the reverse variations with the melody gradually dawning would have seemed more lachrymose than lachrimaye.
It’s a wonderful achievement in variation form – comparable to d’Indy’s Istar where the theme emerges only naked at the end. As an exercise in melancholy it stands with the Elizabethan masters, and the viola’s woody low tenor intimacy. Blackshaw emphasizes the glassy and the etiolated as well as the climaxes, and manages something very individual in the warmth of the homecoming Dowland quotation in the epilogue.
The two Bridge pieces date from around 1908 – there’s about ten in all – forming a core mystery. Bridge (1879-1941) was the finest violist after the great Lionel Tertis in this country, alongside Clarke. Yet though he wrote for instance that Violin Sonata that Blackshaw played last month, he wrote no major piece for his own instrument. This with the examples of Tertis commissions like Bax and Bliss as well as Walton, and Clarke’s own works. His pupil Britten also a violist wrote a few early works then just the Lachrimaye. It’s a great loss. Yet Blackshaw’s way with these two pieces is winning, the curious Edwardian fairy light of the first and the plangent melancholy of the second’s middle section. This Blackshaw revels in and they’re a dark, brief delight with form miniaturist accompaniment by Ono.
The most magnificent romantic gesture was saved till last. Clarke (1886-1979) famously tied with Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), who she then grew to revere and be influenced by, in an America competition presided over by the formidable Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who amongst other things did her best to keep Bridge going with a flow of commissions. She gave the casting vote to Bloch but told Clarke ‘imagine their surprise when I told them your work was by a woman.’
Nevertheless, Clarke still felt it necessary to remind people she wasn’t a fake news, that women could compose masterpieces. Curiously she was born on the very same day as another extremely fine violist and more famous composer – Eric Coates. Though Clarke went on to write an exceptional Piano Trio in 1921, influenced by her new friend Bloch, and wrote several viola works before and after, it’s only now we’re beginning to unearth songs and piano pieces. Sadly, there’s not very much, Clarke being beset by troubles and receiving scant support.
The upswing of th eopening is the mso thrilling in he viola nd piano repertoire, and with its cascading modal piano accompaniment reminds us that Vaughan Williams and folksong weren’t entirely distant from this 1919 work. Still Clarke quotes Alfred de Musset and the wine of youth and live, particularly in the scherzo, and the erotic overtones aren’t far to seek.
The development of the opening motifs – the rhythm of the main piano theme in tied crotchets sound rhythmically but not melodically similar to VW’s The Lark Ascending – is handled with great dexterity sand transformative power. Ono is superb here too.
The wildly exuberant dance scherzo’s brief and in extreme registers, like a classical version of a whirling rag-time gone mad – there’s only a hint of this and not the rhythm. It’s a feather-light affair, and both soloists are alert to keeping it airborne without sounding vehement – with the deep digging textures of the viola no easy task.
The finale’s the most powerful with a return of the earlier motifs and themes brought through a kind of slow movement building the tension to a sudden break-out of melody and pealing bells in the piano, though that’s not before some very unusual developments. It’s the hardest to grasp formally, save for the slow-fast element and obvious melodic thumb-prints from the first movement, but the effect at the end is overwhelming. Again Blackshaw and Ono rise with superfine musicianship to this challenge. Their great strength is pointing up forma relationships with expressivity that’s never over-emphasized.
Still it’d be great to hear them again and we can. In nine days they’re playing this programme again with additional Bridge pieces. The acoustics will be larger, and a second recital will be fascinating. Two viola masterpieces in the hands of a new viola and piano duo already long-seasoned. Terrific.