A neglected voice emerges from the shadows thanks to powerful advocacy

Lorraine McAslan, Sarah-Jane Bradley, Tim Lowe: Swain

The Strad Issue: July 2024

Description: A neglected voice emerges from the shadows thanks to powerful advocacy

Musicians: Lorraine McAslan (violin) Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) Tim Lowe (cello) Timon Altwegg (piano)

Works: Swain: Summer Rhapsody; English Reel; Song at Evening; Cello Sonata; Piano Quartet

Catalogue number: DUTTON CDLX7412

Being familiar with two melodious viola morsels by Freda Swain (1902–84), I jumped at the chance of getting acquainted with more of her music. Those pieces were written in 1958 for educational purposes and are accordingly modest in scope; not that there is anything condescending about Sarah-Jane Bradley’s lovingly phrased Song at Evening or the witty, crisp spiccato she employs in English Reel.

Composed in 1936 and premiered by William Primrose, Summer Rhapsody is the prelude to a large vocal-instrumental work inspired by Shakespeare. Again strongly supported by Timon Altwegg, Bradley perfectly catches its wistful, improvisatory atmosphere. The beginning – shades of Vaughan Williams’s Lark – shows off the full-bodied sound of her 1896 G.A. Chanot viola across its full range.

Swain became unsatisfied with her 1923 Cello Sonata – one of her earliest pieces in a larger format – and removed it from the catalogue of her works, but Altwegg and Tim Lowe make a strong case for it, managing to minimise its undeniable prolixity by the sheer passion of their playing. The Piano Quartet is also conceived on a large scale. Composed in 1950, it finds Swain at the peak of her powers, employing modally tinged harmonies that have occasional brushes with atonality.

In this powerful performance, it makes for a rousing end to a beautifully recorded CD that is further enhanced by illuminating notes from Altwegg, who takes care of the Swain estate and is hopefully already busy selecting music for a sequel.