20th Century violin works from Madeleine Mitchell

Violin Muse

Madeleine Mitchell (violin), Nigel Clayton (piano), Cerys Jones (violin), BBC NOW.
Madeleine Mitchell is a British violinist who is rightly regarded in high esteem both as a solo violinist, and chamber musician. She is a violinist of great virtuosity and one who shows a willingness to experiment. She is a powerful force in contemporary music having commissioned many new works and this release exemplifies her efforts to keep the culture of ‘classical’ music alive¹. Five of the seven works were written for and premiered by Madeleine Mitchell; all seven works represent premiere recordings.

The disc begins with Geoffrey Poole’s Rhapsody for violin & piano. This piece was inspired by a poem from American writer Dorianne Laux, celebrating her husband’s life — he survived falling off a ladder and the ladder’s unsteady rungs are described in Rhapsody’s tenser passages, according to the composer. This piece hints at Shostakovich with its melodies and jazz inflections. It is a varied piece at times humorous, at times searching, at others melancholic. All of this is brought of with seeming ease by Mitchell.

Guto Pew’s Violin Concerto ‘Soft Stillness’ is the most substantial work on the CD. This work was inspired by lines from act five of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice and for this work Mitchell is joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This is one of the highlights of the disc and the members of BBC NOW combine well with the soloist in this rich, imaginative score.

David Matthews wrote two versions of the Romanza; one with piano accompaniment and one with string orchestra, and Madeleine premiered both. We have here the former version with Mitchell ably partnered by Nigel Clayton. This pairing continues with Sadie Harrison’s Aurea Luce, based on a plainsong melody. This piece was originally written at Madeleine Mitchell’s request for a concert to celebrate Sadie Harrison’s 50th birthday. Harrison started writing Aurea Luce on International Women’s Day, and based it on a text by the first wife of Boethius.

Next up Madeleine Mitchell is joined by a second violinist, Cerys Jones, for Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift. These three pieces, which Weir admits are among her favourites, are influenced by the age-old flow of traditional music between Britain and North America and vice versa. The music is original but contains snatches of folk song that evoke the Orkneys. It is surely a work that I will come back to frequently.

Michael Berkeley’s Veilleuse, for violin & piano (Nightwatch) is a reworking of the slow movement of his Violin Sonata. It begins with a quiet restlessness before erupting into a passionate outburst before settling once more. The disc ends with Nyman’s two short pieces Taking it as Read, Nos. 1 & 2 written for the opening of Mitchell’s ‘Red Violin Festival’ in Cardiff.

Despite having been recorded in a variety of venues the overall sound quality of this CD is consistently good. It comes with helpful notes on the pieces, the composers and the performers.

This is a splendid disc that deserves a place in the library of all lovers of contemporary violin music, presenting, as it does, a range of contrasting but complementary pieces of high quality. Mitchell proves to be a persuasive advocate for these colourful new works. Moreover each of the works is highly accessible and does not ‘challenge’ the listener in the manner of some contemporary works that appear to have been more interesting to write than to listen to! Thus this CD would be a great introduction to modern violin works for collectors who habitually steer clear of contemporary works.

iClassical rating: 

Stream on Spotify or buy from Presto Classical.

¹ Madeleine Mitchell has been performing contemporary music for most of her playing career, one of her earliest jobs was as a violinist with Peter Maxwell Davies’ ensemble The Fires of London.