Fascinating repertoire needs stronger characterisation

Lionel Handy: British Cello Works Vol.2

The Strad Issue: May 2023

Description: Fascinating repertoire needs stronger characterisation

Musicians: Lionel Handy (cello) Jennifer Walsh-Hughes (piano)

Works: Armstrong Gibbs: Cello Sonata in E minor op.132. Delius: Cello Sonata. Smyth: Cello Sonata in A minor op.5. Britten: Cello Sonata

Catalogue number: LYRITA SRCD412

This enterprising programme of British cello sonatas encompasses a mixed bag of styles from the tonal writing of Armstrong Gibbs, which hints at Fauré, to the ethereal, impressionistic style of Delius, with its melismatic melodic lines and luscious harmonies. More striking thematic material is encountered in Ethel Smyth’s early sonata, its first movement, cast in an accessible Romantic framework, owing much to Mendelssohn and Schumann.

The performances of these works are assured rather than inspired, the shape of individual phrases requiring greater nuance and a more choreographed dynamic range. The recording sounds a little compressed which serves to underline these limitations.

The Britten Cello Sonata is a completely different kettle of fish, stylistically speaking: its more concise writing and acerbic idiom providing welcome contrast to the opulence of the earlier works. However, similar issues dog this performance too, the ‘Elegia’ movement, in particular, lacking in vivid tonal imagination. There are many alternative recordings of this work that present a more distinctive and expressive interpretation, but if you want to explore the earlier era of British 20th-century cello repertoire, there are worse places to start.