Holloway’s Fascinating Chamber Works

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HOLLOWAY: Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano. Trio for Oboe, Violin & Piano. Viola Sonata / Oliver Pashley, cl; Henrietta Hill, vla; Reese Webster, ob; Rebecca Raimondi, vln; Alessandro Viale, pn / Sheva Contemporary SH208

British composer Robin Holloway, who was the tutor of Peter Seabourne, has had pretty much an outsider’s position in British music. By his own admission, “As a young composer, I wanted to be a Modern among the Moderns. Now I don’t want to shock anyone – I want to please, to stir, to delight, to move and invigorate.”

Most of Holloway’s pieces I had heard prior to this release, however, seemed to me very well constructed but not openly pleasing or delightful—but those were orchestral works. On this CD, in these chamber works, I found Holloway’s work to be exactly as he describes it above. The 17-minute, one-movement Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano, for instance, uses simple, attractive themes which Holloway develops in a clear and relatively easy-to-follow fashion. None of this is meant to imply that his music is so simple as to be uninteresting; God knows we have enough of that around nowadays. On the contrary, it is music of considerable variety and not a little bit of wit, as if Holloway was telling you a fairly long and complex joke or anecdote with little side-jokes and innuendo. I had a smile on my face from start to finish. Even when he throws in a few out-of-tonality chords, he does so in a delightful manner. There is also considerable space in this music; much of it is a dialogue between the two upper instruments, with occasional commentary and interludes by the piano. Eventually, the various threads of the music are remixed and include “snatches, not present first time round, of what has been presented since.” It’s a very clever piece, then, but not one that overdoes cleverness to the point of cuteness.

The Trio for Oboe, Violin & Piano, though equally attractive, is written in a different style. Here, the three instruments interact with each other from the start, in a more conventional manner, with a melodic line that is quite attractive and more lyrical in nature. Interesting harmonic movement is the key to this piece, the theme morphing and changing as it progresses. Here, too, the work’s four movements are somewhat split up, only the third and fourth played without a break. Holloway becomes spikier in his musical discourse through the second-movement “Adagio espressivo,” in which the theme is broken up by pauses and different changes of mood. There is a whimsical passage in which the violin plays pizzicato behind the oboe. In the third movement Scherzino, Holloway reverts to the playful mood of the first trio, but in a faster tempo and with a different way of splitting up the musical line between the three instruments. He also plays quite a bit with syncopations in this movement: there’s a certain similarity to the chamber music of Françaix here. The fourth movement, slow and a bit somber, closes out the work.

Holloway’s sonata for solo viola, another very lyrical piece, uses what Holloway describes as “scordatura tuning,” with the instrument’s bottom string “lowered a semitone to B,” which results in a “duskier and richer” sound. It’s also cleverly written without trying to sound clever: the first movement uses a four-note motif “in ever-widening melodic contours” while the second is a “whirlwind scherzo” played mostly in tremolos except for the trio which uses “chunky double-stops” within a more lyrical theme. Violist Henrietta Hill nonetheless does a terrific job in this piece on this very different instrument. The third movement uses the same four-note motif as the first, but creates a continuous melody out of it, at one point giving the soloist a melodic line above with plucked notes in the lower range. The final “Allegro amabile” has the violist play as “two voices in dialogue: a blithe courtier and a bashful courted one (perhaps).” Here, as in the oboe trio, the final two movements are linked, and there’s a remarkable passage using real jazz rhythms that I especially liked.

This is a splendid disc, one that I’m sure will make any listener a Holloway fan!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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