Guy Johnston & Leon McCawley at Snape

Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano
Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano
Sonata in A for Cello and Piano
Four Short Pieces – II: Spring Song
Scherzo; Mélodie
Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op.65

Guy Johnston (cello) & Leon McCawley (piano)

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 15 October, 2010
Venue: Britten Studio, Snape, Suffolk

Central to the annual Britten Weekend at Snape is the idea of deepening understanding of this remarkable man through different perspectives on his music. This year saw the juxtaposition of works by Britten with those by his teacher, Frank Bridge, a composer whose music sometimes seems to have been all but eclipsed by his illustrious pupil. In the individual titles of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Britten honoured the man and his depth, energy, charm, vitality, reverence, skill and dedication. All these qualities were certainly audible in the performance by Guy Johnston and Leon McCawley of the Sonata for Cello and Piano which Bridge wrote between 1913 and 1917.

Both in the equal balance of the two instruments and in the great romantic sweep of the writing, Bridge seemed to emulate the style of César Franck in his Violin Sonata as much as that of Brahms. Some of the piano figurations are very much in the manner of Gabriel Fauré while, in the increasingly exotic chromatic harmony, there are distinct echoes of Scriabin. It’s all a far cry from the Englishness that is often perceived to be characteristic. Johnston and McCawley caught the moments of anguished mood which surely relate to the Great War yet, with Bridge, there is also a sense of composition offering him a means of escape and this duo rightly indulged the expansive flow of the music as well as being in cool control of its virtuosity.

How does this music connect to the young Britten? With the Sonata in A, written in 1926 when he was only 13, what is so striking is the huge natural facility that Britten possessed, and Bridge must have seen his role as further enabling that innate talent. The three movements of this Sonata may not signal the totally extraordinary genius of a young Mozart or Mendelssohn, but his comfortable grasp of the structural principles of Haydn and Beethoven means the music proceeds without any awkwardness. Johnston and McCawley paid it the compliment of treating the piece on its own merits; playing up all the rhythmic edge and making it spark. Britten’s infallible instinct was there from the beginning, and Bridge, whose own musicianship was so considerable, was the person who would validate his pupil’s burgeoning ambition and steer him judiciously.

Bridge’s humour and warmth emerged in the short pieces that connected the two Britten works, leading to the ultimate focus of the evening, Britten’s Sonata from 1961, the first of five cello pieces written for Mstislav Rostropovich. Written in five movements, the Sonata begins with ‘Dialogo’, its effect is almost that of a duel, with the piano’s challenging flurry of arpeggios followed by the cello’s furious riposte. Johnston and McCawley despatched this opening with such forceful conviction that the simplicity of the corresponding exchange was both disarming and touching. The immediate return to the fiercer stance again caught the ear by surprise and this feeling of total engagement – each instrument with the other and each player with the other – was brilliantly sustained throughout the movement. The central ‘Elegia’ was particularly moving and it was impossible not to conjure an image of Rostropovich and Britten playing this together for the first time at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival. There was also something poignant about hearing this piece in the studio today bearing Britten’s name, a space which has achieved the same simplicity that the composer had sought in the Maltings and whose scale and even greater intimacy complements the larger hall so very well.

Johnston and McCawley’s choice of Debussy’s Cello Sonata to begin this recital had also been apt: not only was it written around the same time as Bridge’s, but it pointed up another connection. When Debussy’s String Quartet was given its premiere, Frank Bridge was the viola player, so his first-hand experience of Debussy’s music would have helped define Britten’s earliest encounters with the French composer. (And Rostropovich and Britten made a classic recording of the Debussy.) Johnston and McCawley reflected beautifully the fine balance between the wistful melancholy that imbues the work and the occasionally more declamatory style. Debussy’s invocation of the spirit of Rameau and Couperin in this latter mode was part of his implicit belief that the integrity of French culture should be upheld in the face of the terrible adversity of war. Johnston and McCawley ensured that Debussy’s own deep integrity shone through.

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