Wilma & Friends – The Romantic English

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Published: 13th April, 2015

Violinist Wilma Smith is fortunate to number a horn player among her illustrious friends, with many of them string players, pianists and singers. The inclusion of Andrew Bain in The Romantic English, with pianist Ian Munro completing the trio, allowed for the inclusion of worthy works for horn by lesser-known English composers. The middle work, Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 82, both justified the title of the concert and gave new insight to the composer, better known for his Cello Concerto than this lovely work.

The Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre was comfortably filled as the program got off to a delayed start. In 2015 the MRC Local Heroes series honours the Anzacs (on this occasion Private Adolf Thompson Knabe), and this added a poignancy to the choice of composers, all of them affected by World Wars.

Sally Williams’ program notes record that the first of them, Joseph Holbrooke (1878‐1958), enjoyed “considerable fame, although after World War One, he fell into obscurity”. His Horn Trio could hardly be more respectfully conveyed than by the ensemble we heard, even to the important rests, which were beautifully in sync. The balance between the three players was good, although Bain did not shy from asserting the horn in passages such as the counterpoint of the first movement. Apart from the horn’s rich, true sound, some may have found a work said to be inspired by the Brahms Trio Op 40 to be more modern than romantic although there was much to admire, with Smith making the most of elegiac, sensitive passages, and Munro leading by example with the brisk theme that led to a spirited ending for all three.

Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor was completed as the Great War was drawing to a close, and was first performed early the next year. Like the famous Cello Concerto it reveals a romantic sensibility unsuspected from the composer’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, for instance. It began, like the Holbrooke, with a declamatory statement but soon gave the violin a singing melody, and added a lyrical piano. This was music that suited the performers’ strengths, with the louder dynamics adding to the power of the music, and a balance between the instruments that truly made this chamber music (rather than violin, with piano accompaniment).

In the second movement, Smith’s thoughtful phrasing was matched by Munro’s lilting piano, the ending an example of Romanticism at its peak, with flourishes that were yet understated. It was a return to declamatory statements in the final movement, Allegro non troppo, that settled to an easy partnership. There was some dialogue before both instruments gained pace and dynamics, a diversion through a Romantic soundscape – and then strength and volume for the perfectly judged finish.

The Horn Trio by Wilfred Josephs (1927‐1997) rounded the evening off both musically and historically. An English composer born to Jewish parents, Josephs grew up in the shadow of World War Two, and Williams’ notes draw attention to his Requiescant pro defunctis, “a string quartet which was Joseph’s personal response to newsreel footage of Auschwitz shown during the Adolf Eichmann trial …[and] … became the basis of his Requiem.” But Josephs was a prolific composer including for many British television productions, with his classical works including the Horn Trio Op. 76 for horn, violin and piano, first performed in 1971.

Although being the most distant from the Romantic era in composition, the performance of this work delighted with its lyricism and other Romantic characteristics. It began with Larghetto con brio, the horn perfect for the somewhat moody theme while violin and piano followed suit. The synchronicity of the three became evident in the faster passage that followed, with the horn anchoring the whole with long notes, and later delivering a clarion call with great power. All three instruments had different emphases but understanding between them was superb, whether it be in entries, some unison passages or simply the timing of all three. There was a rich ending to this movement.

Next, came the Adagio again with a lyrical piano and opportunity to admire Munro’s gentle but firm touch, into which the horn asserted an appealing melody with the accompaniment in the bass register. Enter Smith’s violin, at a higher pitch, with some complexities of rhythm but seamlessly integral to the trio. A swaying passage was introduced by Bain’s always-true horn which, with violin and piano, joined in a lovely exploration of the idea before a gentle ending. This well-balanced partnership continued (albeit at a faster pace) in the Rondo, a quite short but entirely satisfactory ending to a sonorous, charming work. Its inclusion alone justified the title of the concert – The Romantic English. All three composers qualified for the title – and together, these three players showed empathy with their vision.