I’m a big fan of brevity (you might not believe it from my blog posts, but it’s true). I even wrote my university dissertation on Walter Willson Cobbett’s ‘Phantasy’ form – designed to be the chamber music equivalent to the overture or prelude (see the article I made from it here).
So I was intrigued to discover that violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Nicola Eimer have released a new album of violin sonatinas. The sonatina is a strange diminutive beast, retaining the multi-movement structure of the sonata while reducing its scale. It’s a name that almost begs you not to take it seriously – the sort of title you might expect to come across in a lower-grade instrumental exam book. But perhaps my favourite violin sonata – Rubbra’s 3rd – is short enough to be a sonatina in all but name anyway, so this felt like familiar ground.
What these shorter pieces allow for, of course, is greater variety within a programme, something alluded to in the lovely title ‘So Many Stars’. This comes from a diary entry by Sibelius – one of the six composers featured – around the time he was writing his sonatina, and it’s a nice metaphor for taking delight in a multitude of small things.
He’s probably the biggest name here in a group covering 20-21st century music, though all towards the more tonal end of the spectrum. And this disc shows that these sonatinas – all in three movements – are no mere trifles, but make for compelling listening. The form has been a tempting small canvas for composers early in their careers, such as Françaix and Alwyn, but it can also be a neat way to bring together odds and ends – Gordon Crosse’s sonatina was written quickly after hearing Humphreys perform in 2010, ‘using a combination of old and new material’, while Cheryl Frances-Hoad reworked a cello piece.
Humphreys has become a reliable champion of lesser-known repertoire, and particularly British composers, of whom we have four here (her recent recording of the Doreen Carwithen sonata is particularly wonderful). What’s refreshing about this selection is that the works by Alwyn and Berkeley are not quarantined away on an all-British discs, as is so often the case. (In a conversation on Twitter, Humphreys revealed that it’s easier to get funding for all-British discs, which goes some way to explaining this trend, and that’s a pity, because it’s great to be able to make connections to composers across the channel – otherwise it creates the impression that British music of this period had a kind of parochial existence, unconcerned by what was happening elsewhere.)
Their two lyrically-inclined pieces bookend the album, but this collection also showcases composers in a less familiar guise. Françaix is better known to me for his wonderfully witty music for woodwind, but his sonatina nonetheless provides an effective outlet for his suave, impish humour. Sibelius is not greatly renowned for chamber music at all, but his work is very charming indeed.
Frances-Hoad’s piece probably has the most weight and intensity behind it, with the unusual format of two slow outer movements, her middle movement dancing with harmonics, and culminating in an intensely expressive lento. Crosse – a new name to me entirely – uses minimal piano accompaniment to particularly stark effect.
All in all this is a very rewarding disc, which commendably side-steps routine programming.