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British Cello Works

Lionel Handy (cello), Jennifer Hughes (piano) (Lyrita)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

British Cello Works
R Clarke: Rhapsody for Cello and Piano; Lutyens: Bagatelles; Maconchy: Divertimento for Cello and Piano; Smyth: Cello Sonata in C minor
Lionel Handy (cello), Jennifer Hughes (piano)
Lyrita SRCD.383   73:06 mins

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This is a fascinating quartet of cello-piano duos spanning a period of seismic shifts in music (1880 to 1943). They happen to be all composed by women, all of whom had to battle to be heard, but whose highly distinctive musical characters found expression in the aesthetic of their time.

Ethel Smyth’s richly lyric Sonata owes its opening motif to Schubert’s Arpeggione, but swiftly takes off in expansive and imaginative flight. Her debt to Mendelssohn and Brahms is palpable, but this is highly intuitive writing for both instruments, showing all the promise realised in her Second Cello Sonata (1887). While the charming Allegretto and sincere Andante are perhaps over-extended, the outer movements are dynamic: it’s high time it was published. Lionel Handy and Jennifer Hughes are warmly persuasive, if sometimes lacking in energy in performing this particular work.

This cannot be said for their inspired performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Rhapsody (1923). It’s haunted by the modal material from the famous Viola Sonata, but conceived on a bigger, more dramatic scale. It’s also a gift to cellists, with its urgent, vaulting cantilenas against glassily transparent piano textures, and darkly mysterious recitatives.

Elizabeth Machonchy’s Divertimento and Elisabeth Lutyens’s Bagatelles were written at almost the same time, during the war. Machonchy’s set are vividly etched miniatures, spiced with her typically angular wit and a huge range of colours: they don’t always take effortless flight off page in these performances. Lutyens’s more austere sketches sometimes seem to turn too tightly in on themselves, obsessing over tonal starvation rations: nevertheless, the rigour and economy are impressive.

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Helen Wallace