A near-forgotten masterpiece

The Cello Sonata by John Foulds is a shamefully neglected work. I could list – could not we all? – dozens of pieces that I love that are neglected, but, as often as not, I’d have to admit grudgingly that those pieces were challenging, difficult or eccentric and, therefImageore, perhaps, rather difficult to approach. The Foulds Sonata is certainly eccentric, but it is – to a large extent by dint of its very eccentricity – warm, open-hearted, tuneful, engaging and, surely, approachable.

Let me leave aside my bafflement at its neglect and concentrate, rather, on encouraging you, dear reader, to listen to this beguiling, affirmative, inventive wonder of a composition.

It is important to say that the Cello Sonata is experimental, surprisingly so for a work written in 1906 (though revised in 1927 – it is not clear how many of the work’s more avant garde elements were added during its revision). Foulds was a man before his time. In the 1930s, for example, long before our current interest in so-called world music, Foulds was working with Indian traditional musicians. Alas, though, his compositions from this period all seem to be lost. But even in this earlier work, we encounter surprising dissonances, disruptive rhythms and even quarter-tones.


These experimental elements are employed skilfully to give the Cello Sonata an arresting, individual character. But the affection that I feel for it – and I’m certain you’ll agree with me – derives from its downright Dvorakian melodic warmth. Even if you don’t have time to hear to the whole piece (the more fool you) listen to its central Lento movement (starting at 9:00). The dark-hued introduction has the cello strumming questioningly until the piano arrives to lighten the texture with winsome hints of melody, though a shift to major-key harmonies is only arrived at slowly. When that hint of warmth arrives, it gives the cello heart to embark upon a song. The piano seems to provide assurance, and between them they spin out a lengthy, lovely melody. Despite the sweetness, tenderness and, at times, restrained passion, presently the melody falters, droops and leads back to a reminiscence of the opening music, cloudy and foreboding – the cello here playing eerie, wintry quarter-tone shifts. And we only return – rapturously – to that enchanting big melody via an episode that is introspective and impressionistic. It seems inevitable that, after a repeat of the cello’s song, we go back to the dark opening music. But, once again, there is a thaw as the harmonies shift, hopefully, towards the movement’s close. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Incidentally, the performance on youtube linked to here is a fairly recent recording by the excellent Watkins brothers: Cellist Paul (who has now joined the inestimable Emerson Quartet) and pianist Huw. The CD that it is taken from includes music by Parry, Delius and Granville Bantock. I would consider it an essential acquisition. But if you are as taken by this gorgeous music as I am, you should also try to hunt down an earlier recording by Jo Cole and John Talbot, released under the auspices of the British Music Society. While Cole and Talbot can’t quite match the Watkins Brothers over all, for me at least, they do have the edge in the slow movement, where they seem a little more attuned to its peculiar autumnal beauty. 

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Posted in Classical music

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