Winston Churchill’s famous witticism that Britain and America are divided by a common language is equally true of their musical output. In late-romantic repertoire, the accent on either side is so strong that a listener could never mistake Elgar for Barber, let alone Britten for Bernstein.
Much of the appeal of this COVID-era recital by violinist Callum Smart and pianist Richard Uttley lies in the effort they invest to find common ground.
Elgar’s violin sonata, written in the last summer of the First World War, is in deep denial of all that was going on around him. If he got bored while composing, he went out for a walk in the woods and down to the river for some fly-fishing. Nowhere is there a hint of the unending slaughter in France. The sonata was premiered in his Hampstead drawing room, a gesture of normality in defiance of reality.
Amy Beach’s Romance, dated 1893, occupies an Edith Wharton world that is all gesture and very little substance. It was premiered at a Chicago trade fair and has a rather lovely melodic line that belongs nowhere in the noise and blood of Chicago’s industries.
An 1899 Romance by the half-African Londoner Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is no more engaged with the tensions of the composer’s short life, his poverty and the prejudices he faced for living in a mixed-race marriage. What Smart and Uttley do, and do well, is to present these period pieces without overt intervention, allowing the listener to draw impressions and conclusions. The result is one of the year’s most atmospheric releases.
Two contemporary composers are counterpointed, a young British woman Kate Whitley and the well-established Californian John Adams. Whitley plays post-modern games with three short pieces, teasing us with unconsummated glances. Adams, in Road Movies, is Adams: all rhythm, not a lot of blues and an insistent impression of trains.
To read more from Norman Lebrecht, follow him on Slippedisc.com.
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