Fanfare

In Violin Muse, violinist Madeleine Mitchell has assembled works by her roughly contemporary British composers. She inspired many of them, and all receive on this disc their recorded premieres. The first, Godfrey Poole’s Rhapsody—according to the composer, who has served as her accompanist, though not here—explores the “op. 96” aspect of Mitchell’s musical virtuosity and loosely fol¬lows a poem, “Song,” by Dorianne Laux. It’s tonal in an extended sense, but it’s not consistently singing or lyrical—-jagged interjections interrupt its flow. Mitchell and her pianist, Nigel Clayton, capture both the sunny and the unsettled manners it limns.

Guto Pryderi Puw’s two-movement Violin Concerto, “Soft Stillness,” also draws on poetry, in this case, lines from act V of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. In the first movement, according to Puw, the conflicts between soloist and orchestra may actually mimic the relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica. The more unsettled tumult at the end of this movement grows stridently dissonant, while the beginning of the second movement, after an abrupt ending to the first, returns to the more contemplative manner of the concerto’s opening. The melodies assume familiar shapes, but listeners shouldn’t expect to hear them coalescing in sweet tonal harmony, despite the preponderance of consonant intervals. In both the first movement’s dissonant moments and the second’s lyrical ones, the engineers have placed Mitchell well within, rather than in front of, the web of orchestral sound, making the concerto, like her performance of it, a sort of exercise in chamber-like cooperation and intimacy.

Mitchell asked David Matthews to write a Romanza for her, resulting in two versions—for violin and strings and this reduction for violin and piano. Mitchell suggests that he wasn’t sure how to proceed after the introduction, but took note of an essay proclaiming that triple time isn’t so common nowadays and accordingly wrote what might loosely be called a waltz. Mitchell’s tonal luster in the opening section and her rhythmic verve and assured double-stops in the triple-time sections make a strong impression, both for her performance and for the piece itself. How does the version for violin and strings, upon which this one’s based, compare? Does the string accompaniment support the harmonic shifts as effectively (or as slyly) as does Nigel Clayton’s alert pianism? Sadie Harrison wrote Aurea Luce for Mitchell and Poole, intending it for St. Peter’s in Shaftesbury on the occasion of Harrison’s 50th birthday. It follows a plainsong hymn for the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair and, although it breaks into double-stops and imitates the pealing of bells in its middle section, it largely retains the eternal serenity of its Gregorian origins.

In Judith Weir’s set of three pieces for two violins, Cerys Jones joins Mitchell. Of the three works—Sleep Sound ida Mornin’, Atlantic Drift, and Rain and Mist Are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (this piece in four parts)—the first sounds like a fiddle tune (Weir heard it on the Orkney Islands) and the third derives from a Gaelic folk song. Weir wrote the second, Atlantic Drift, without relying on such sources. While these pieces may have origins in folk song, they’re far from simple fiddle tunes, and Mitchell and Jones take them very seriously indeed. Michael Berkeley derived Veillieuse (which he translates as “Night Watch”) for the Belgrade Festival from the slow movement of an earlier violin sonata, but it also contains some tonal material—according to the notes, drawn from some of his early string music. Now it’s a quasi-exotic meditation chastely accompanied by the piano, and more somber and forbidding. The program comes to a conclusion with Michael Nyman’s Taking It As Read, a pair of short pieces more traditional in their harmonic schemes (Mitchell describes them as suggesting a Welsh hymn); Mitchell and Clayton invest them with the lush warmth their style demands.

For those who enjoy exploring the ways and byways of contemporary British music, Mitchell’s protean compilation could serve as a vade mecum. Not everything will be likely to be to every listener’s taste, but there’s so much here that something’s almost bound to reach a receptive audience. Recommended to those explorers.

—Robert Maxham