Some composers seem to have the dice loaded against them in the game of life, and so it was with the violist and composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979). She had a great deal of difficulty in establishing her independence, at a time when women did not even have the vote, and when she did gain a chance of a small amount of fame, it was snatched from her in a rather unfair fashion. Her Viola Sonata was in contention for the first prize in the 1919 Coolidge Competition, but because Mrs Coolidge knew Clarke, she felt she had to give her casting vote to Ernest Bloch’s Suite. Time has proved that the Clarke piece should have won, but it took the rest of the composer’s lifetime to win through. In the meantime the New Grove dictionary dished out the insult of virtually omitting Clarke and referring readers to the entry for her husband James Friskin! Nowadays the Clarke Sonata is one of the handful of most popular viola pieces with piano, a worthy alternative to the Schubert (Arpeggione), Brahms, Hindemith and Shostakovich Sonatas and the Schumann pieces.
Having watched its rise with interest and satisfaction over the past forty years, I am not best pleased to find it being played on the cello. Natalie Clein’s version is at least the third, following a horrible one by Raphael Wallfisch and another by Pamela Frame that I have not heard. The work is so bound up with the modern renaissance of the viola, it arises so naturally from the very soul of the viola, Clarke’s own instrument, that a cello is bound to make a very different impression. Paul Hindmarsh’s notes mention an “alternative version for cello”, but we read in the recording details: “The cello part for the Clarke sonata was prepared by Natalie Clein and William Foster.” Christopher Johnson informs me that Clarke worked with her close friend and colleague, the cellist May Mukle, on preparing an alternative cello part for the publisher Chester – a common strategem to increase sales and performances. Clein refers to “the cello sonata”, adding: “I call it that because [Clarke] also did when it was played by a cellist.” My own view is that, had she realised how popular it would become, Clarke would never have wanted her Sonata played on anything but a viola. Great violists such as Tertis, Riddle and Primrose never performed it, yet in recent decades, feminist violists have often created an extraordinary effect in the Sonata, giving performances full of crusading zeal, and a number of those interpretations have found their way on to CD.
Having got all that off my chest, I have to admire aspects of Clein’s performance. The first thing to say is that it banishes Wallfisch’s dire, generalised effort, with its all-purpose warmth, from the mind and asserts itself with real cello playing. In the past I have enjoyed Clein’s fine-boned recording of the Elgar Concerto; and her most recent release to come my way, containing solo pieces by Bloch, Dallapiccola and Ligeti, is excellent. She finds a darkness in the Clarke Sonata which, although it cannot match the elegiac character of viola tone, does at least represent a point of view. She latches on to the correct portamento style for the period, while observing good taste, and she gives a very passionate rendering of the opening movement. In the Scherzo (Vivace) she and Christian Ihle Hadland achieve considerable lightness; but if you turn to the performance by violist Patricia McCarty and pianist Virginia Eskin – one of the earliest recordings of the Sonata – you hear an effect akin to thistledown. By comparison, Clein and Hadland evoke an elephant dancing on a barrel. The pianist has to set the tone for the final movement and here Hadland is very plain and uninteresting in the introductory Adagio, his dreariness easily trumped by Eskin. Clein delivers some inward playing and she and Hadland work up to a terrific climax; the Allegro is suitably rhapsodic and there is a pleasing effect when the big theme returns towards the end.
I have always had a problem with Frank Bridge’s earlier music: like so much Edwardian poetry, it has a somewhat faded air. In the 1920s, when he hauled himself up by the bootstraps into the modernist era, he was much more impressive. The opening movement of the Cello Sonata, completed before the Great War, is quite optimistic but its general air of late-Romanticism does not linger in my mind. Clein adopts a very warm tone: hearing the Sonata reviewed on the radio, I was worried that her sound was too fluffy, but heard on my hi-fi it is much more ‘together’ and impressive. The second movement was much revised, Bridge crunching three movements – slow, Scherzo and Finale – into one. Here Hadland’s introduction to the Adagio ma non troppo is better than his corresponding effort in the Clarke and the movement is well-played in a committed manner. But here I must mention sound quality: the whole programme is quite closely recorded and in this long movement, as Clein piles on bow pressure, the tone of her 1777 Guadagnini sometimes seems to be fighting the microphone. Sorry to keep harping on pachyderms, but here the elephant in the room is the great performance by Rostropovich and Britten (Decca). Good as they are, I think Clein and Hadland are outgunned.
Three short pieces by Bridge are enjoyable. Serenade and Spring Song – which Clein has been playing since her childhood – make pleasant if unmemorable listening and the more substantial Scherzo, nice and lively, is tossed off with real panache.
Finally we come to Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folk Song, which in a way bring us full circle, as they were dedicated to, and first played by May Mukle. Five of Clein’s performances are nice enough and she gets the throwaway ending of No.6 (‘As I walked over London Bridge’) just right; but she does not manage the parlando tone that most of the pieces need, especially No.4 (‘She borrowed some of her mother’s gold’), and she rather misses the point of No.3 (‘Van Dieman’s Land’). Turn to Eilen Croxford’s 1973 recording with her husband David Parkhouse at the piano, and you hear much more of a parlando; and by giving all except No.5 a little more air in which to expand, Croxford makes each one memorable. Best of all is the adorable violist Jean Stewart, a close friend of the composer. She also gives all these little snippets more air, especially the Lento, while in ‘Van Dieman’s Land’ her lovely tone tugs at the heartstrings. Her 1963 version with Daphne Ibbott is a minor Vaughan Williams classic, and incidentally her only solo recording.
As not one of Clein’s performances is an absolute knock-out, I suspect this disc will appeal most to her fans and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, are allergic to the viola. Apart from the anomaly mentioned in the Bridge, the recordings are fine.