Elgar & Vaughan Williams
Remarkable Lark: Jennifer Pike soars in Vaughan Williams
Here are two great British violin sonatas – Elgar’s well-established masterpiece and the still much underestimated Vaughan Williams – both superbly played. In the Elgar, Jennifer Pike is fully engaged with the rhetoric of its opening theme, not immediately squeezing all its emotional juice but saving her most impassioned tone for the peak of its phrase. Her brilliant partner, Martin Roscoe, is equally at the service of the music – the character of the work their sole concern.
Vaughan Williams’s Sonata, a late composition (completed 1954), can sound rather rambling. Here, Pike and Roscoe’s detailed characterisation of its themes ensures it coheres into a substantial and very personal drama. Even its very opening is vitalised by Roscoe’s idiomatic articulation of its rhythmic profile; and Pike, launching into this work with sturdy tone, shows a remarkable range of colour, whether in her impassioned yet true sounding double stopping, or using grit and cutting tone one moment before switching to a beguiling, tender lyricism. Far from dreamy pastoral, this sonata enlarges on the darker recesses of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony and in the acidulous scherzo, Job. The finale’s theme and variations have an almost Chaconne-like grandeur.
Pike can do veiled and dream-like all right – witness in the Elgar’ first movement her undulating tranquill0 quavers – but refreshingly avoids that cliché in the ever-popular The Lark Ascending, presenting a proud yet quite unselfconscious songster. With Roscoe creating a sense of rapt stillness with its opening chords, the effect is unusual and touching.
Daniel Jaffé, September 2020
THE STRAD RECOMMENDS
Rare and well-known repertoire with a twist combine in an irresistible release
This is an enticing CD that lives up to its promise. Vaughan Williams’s Violin Sonata is a rarity, and The Lark Ascending is best known in its orchestral version. The standard repertoire here is Elgar’s Violin Sonata, which Pike and Roscoe perform with vigour and entrancing sensitivity. They launch into the first movement with red-blooded energy, following which Pike’s tender, small voice is the more affecting. In the central Romance she moves from light caprice to deep reverie; the grand rhetoric and limpid subtleties of the finale complete a tremendous performance.
Pike and Roscoe give a persuasive demonstration of why Vaughan Williams’s A minor sonata, a stark and beautiful work, deserves more attention. They gently explore the strangely unsettling landscape of the first movement, with Pike bringing fraught character to its double-stopped interjections. She pushes urgently through the quixotic 4/4 Scherzo, whose nervy scamperings seems cousins to Shostakovich. The last movement theme and variations are predominantly lyrical, and Pike maintains a singing line even when triple-stopping. The rapid arabesques of the short cadenza neatly anticipate The Lark Ascending which follows, given a gentle, rippling performance. The recorded sound is well-balanced and clear.
Tom Homfray, October 2020
‘Chamber Recording of the Year 2020’
Violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Martin Roscoe previously recorded a recital of French violin sonatas; this disc of music by two English masters is even finer. Both sonatas come from late in their composers’ careers.
The notes suggest Elgar’s work is a lament for the passing of the Edwardian era. If so, there is nothing maudlin about it. Both the opening Allegro and the third (final) movement have an urgency to them, a Brahmsian intensity even in the lyrical moments, which is searingly captured in this performance. The second movement, a Romance, is both intimate and quirky with its halting progress and throwaway motifs; at times it reminds me of the ‘character’ music in Elgar’s late tone poem Falstaff. Pike and Roscoe could possibly point this quirkiness a little more, but they are superb elsewhere.
Vaughan Williams’ Violin Sonata is rarely heard, but it is another compelling piece. In three movements, the sonata’s finale consists of a theme and variations. Again, any vision of the composer as a bluff, staid Englishman is contradicted by the vigour and imaginative sonorities of his music. Roscoe relishes the mysterious exoticism of the opening Fantasia, and both musicians throw themselves into the second movement’s Allegro Furioso with beautifully controlled abandon.
The Lark Ascending is extremely popular in its orchestral guise, but the violin and piano version came first (in 1918). The middle section, with the violin trilling on high while the piano plays a birdcall motif underneath, actually registers more clearly than in the orchestrated version. Pike’s lark is not overly ethereal, but she soars with confident ardour.
A benchmark recording of the two sonatas is that from 1978 by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin. Yehudi had a strong affinity for this music and is highly expressive, but his intonation is neither as secure nor his tone as pure as Pike’s, while Roscoe is the more imaginative pianist. This new recording is a must if you don’t know these great pieces.
Phillip Scott, September 2020
Though still only 30 years of age, violinist Jennifer Pike already has a solidly-built catalogue of recordings behind her, ranging from acclaimed discs of Polish and Czech works for violin and piano to the great concertos by Mendelssohn and Sibelius. She may have resisted the starrier, more headline-grabbing strategies of some of her colleagues, but, having started her career as something of a prodigy, her steady approach to developing a distinctive profile has reaped huge benefits in terms of the quality and depth of her music-making. A case in point is her latest release, accompanied by the ever dependable Martin Roscoe at the piano, in violin sonatas by Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
Pike understands [Elgar’s] inherent duality from the outset, and her playing has an urgency that doesn’t distract from the more reflective, poetic aspects of the work. Her playing combines vigour with immaculate intonation and exquisite cantabile tone, gentle gradations of pianissimo as well as ardent intensity. The emotional range is cast wide in the opening movement, and the tone deepens still further in the central Romance, where every throwaway gesture seems loaded with implied meaning, the intersection between a fondly remembered past and a bittersweet present.
The third and final movement appears to start out most idyllically of the three, yet the return, just before the coda, of the middle section from the Romance recalls another moment of intense sadness, added to the work after the unexpected death of the Sonata’s dedicatee, Marie Joshua, just days after she had written to Elgar expressing her honour in accepting the dedication. In his own comments, Elgar emphasised the work’s traditional credentials, yet at the hands of Pike and Roscoe it is a work of remarkable resilience and potency, and it receives from them one of the most persuasive performances on disc, certainly one to make one reevaluate its place within the composer’s oeuvre and within the violin repertoire in general.
Much rarer on record is the A minor Violin Sonata by Elgar’s successor as England’s leading composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Once again, Pike and Roscoe do the work proud in a performance that brings out the music’s strengths as well as its striking originality. Indeed, it emerges as an ideal coupling for the Elgar, complementary in many ways, but also with some striking parallels in a bittersweet longing for a vanished past.
The disc is rounded off with the original version, for violin and piano, of Vaughan Williams’s perennially popular romance The Lark Ascending, to which the end of the preceding Sonata seems to allude. Here Jennifer Pike’s tone is simply magical, conjuring up a kaleidoscope of imagery that more than makes up for the loss of orchestral colour: indeed, there are details that emerge with greater clarity in this version, while it seems expressively to provide the necessary balm for the emotional wounds of the two Sonatas. Composed some years before the Elgar Sonata, but premiered after it, The Lark here ties up the loose ends very nicely to a disc that no lover of English music will want to be without. It’s certainly one of Pike’s best yet – which is saying much.
Europadisc, August 2020
Reviewing some 30 recordings of Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor for a Gramophone Collection in January 2016, it was eye-opening to behold the considerable variety of interpretations of this rather unconventional work – especially the rhapsodic first movement with its plethora of thematic ideas and its peculiar tonal dynamic (which veers as much towards A minor as it does towards E). Jennifer Pike’s individual reading of the first movement is one of well-defined character elements: drama for the first subject (which begins in A minor) and a spellbinding tranquillity for the main secondary idea (in which the articulation across the strings is beautifully executed) – which culminates in an imposing climax.
Pike seems very much at home in the modal world of Vaughan Williams’s late Violin Sonata in A minor (1954), and she and Martin Roscoe negotiate the imaginative Fantasia structure of the first movement with verve and vigour. The intonation of the multiple-stopping is well-nigh flawless and the execution of the long melodic passages is carefully balanced and nuanced….captivating as individual movements [the variations] and as a cumulative structure, especially in the way the final variation merges with a memory of the first-movement Fantasia in a glowing A major conclusion.
It is also good to be reminded that the original version of The Lark Ascending, premiered by Marie Hall and Geoffrey Mendham in 1920, was conceived as a chamber work for violin and piano rather than the more symphonic canvas we now take for granted in its orchestral garb. Pike and Roscoe point up its many expressive and elegiac merits.
Jeremy Dibble, August 2020
In Pike…we have a musician of proven attainment whose discs have also won acclaim and accompanied as she is by Martin Roscoe, who has also often accompanied [Tasmin] Little, we have a strong duo.
Pike scores strongly in driving to the peaks of phrases and in drawing the expressive threads together…she binds the quixotic elements very adeptly, those quick pizzicati ringing out, the music moving with phrasal directness, its Schumannesque inheritance never overplayed. In the finale she plays the reminiscence section with speed and tonal purity, its passion hardly sublimated when played this way – too slow and it sags – and leading to a triumphant ending.
This latest disc is very fine and enlightening on its own terms’
Jonathan Woolf, August 2020
The Lark Ascending
Pike’s soaring Lark is a masterclass in expressive free flight…Jennifer Pike opens The Lark Ascending with delicacy and grace, her vibrato contained and expressive. As she moves into the first melody, that vibrato occasionally stops altogether, leaving pure, expressive notes within the exquisite soundscape. This whole first section is a masterclass in how to structure an extended musical paragraph. The young players of the Chamber Orchestra of New York then come into their own with some fine solo playing, particularly from the flute, as Pike pirouettes lissomly around them (the recording is clear and well balanced). Her playing is clean and fluent, each note perfectly focused and placed. Her double-stopped allargando phrases weaving down in 5ths (mostly) are magical. She has the gift of making time stand still, even as the music flows forwards. The final cadenza is sublime, as the Lark ascends to top B and disappears. This is the last work on the disc, as it should be: no one would want to hear anything else after that.
Tim Homfray, March 2017