Sonata for Viola and Piano
'Tooryn Vannin' ['The Towers of Man']forces: Viola, Piano
published by: Composers Edition
- Milner’s Tower: Con moto appassionato
- Corrin’s Lament: Andante poco lento – Allegro non troppo – Tempo primo
- Vivo, animato – Stretto: molto vivace
In 2009 I attended a performance of my ‘Cello Sonata at the Isle of Man Festival. Intrigued by the mysterious outline of Milner’s Tower, guarding the bay directly opposite Port Erin, I walked up to it on a sunny, blustery afternoon. By the time I returned, a companion sonata for viola and piano had been conceived.
Milner’s Tower (1871) was meant to be a civic gesture of thanks for a kindly philanthropist’s support of impoverished Port Erin fishermen – but, upon hearing of it, Milner weighed in yet again and helped to finance his own monument. Fully exposed to whatever the Irish Sea can fling at it, the strange, hollow edifice is turned by strong winds into a huge musical instrument, producing a succession of eerie and mournful tones from its interior.
A few miles further north, another tower stands on cliffs above the little cathedral city of Peel. Erected by Thomas Corrin in 1806, this forbidding structure is topped by crenellated battlements. Originally it commemorated Corrin’s wife and two of his children, possibly stillborn twins. Corrin laid them to rest in their own tiny, strange cemetery beside the tower. Unable to tear himself away from the focus of his grief, he then fell to reading endlessly in an upper room: a pursuit from which he was compelled to desist when shipping began perilously to mistake his nocturnal lighting arrangements for the Peel water break signal.
The Sonata seeks to convey the emotional impact of these particular places and their past upon a visitor seeing them for the first time. Cast in fairly conventional sonata form but with a slightly condensed recapitulation, the opening movement presents an unrepentantly romantic first theme, contrasting it eventually with a pair of secondary subjects which share certain of its melodic contours and become intertwined with it in the course of a discursive central development section.
In contrast, the second movement imagines Corrin seeking consolation as he reads by candlelight far into the small hours. After a sombre beginning whose bell-like tolling makes conscious reference to Le Gibet, the macabre centrepiece in Ravel’s iconic piano triptych Gaspard de la Nuit, the nocturnal solitude of Corrin’s meditations is interrupted by a serene scherzo-like central section in which Corrin is surrounded by consoling presences and his own spirit again takes wing with them for a brief space. A recurrent motif from the piano implies the continued presence of these ghostly visitants, and the viola that of Corrin himself. Gradually, however, the funereal tolling begins again, the viola returns to its former lamenting and the spirits depart. A plangent climax subsides into reminiscences of earlier music, including the opening subject of the first movement, and a final repetition of the ‘spirit’ motif dissolves to leave the bell sound still tolling, till this, too, becomes finally inaudible.
The finale admits of no specific connection to a single place, and accordingly has no subtitle; but its primary content suggested itself during an afternoon walk in perfect weather to the coastal point opposite the so-called Calf of Man. The music synthesises new material with that of the preceding two movements, blending into a single whole some of the key features of all three (the salient intervals of the work’s opening theme are frequently apparent, both in their original form and in inversion). An initial rapid semiquaver theme from the viola presents repeated notes in threes, as an accelerated transformation of the tolling bell from movement two. A lengthy secondary subject recollects melodic contours from both preceding movements. The mood darkens until varied and energetic rhythmic activity serves to develop and explore aspects of the initial theme. A varied recapitulation of the movement’s first section leads to a spacious climax, but further reminiscences of the Sonata’s opening theme disperse to reveal a sorrowful echo of Corrin, still lamenting his loved ones in a passage of stilled introspection. This is abruptly cut off by a return of the finale’s opening. Cross-rhythms which have been a recurrent feature of the movement precipitate the music into a headlong, jig-like stretto, still embracing hints of the work’s opening theme and finally achieving an affirmation of G, the tonality in which the Sonata began.
Written for the London-based, Japanese-born violist Yuko Inoue, this work was first performed by her with the composer at the Lake District Summer Music annual festival, Ambleside, on 12 August 2014. Recorded for CD the following October, it was released by EM Records on 16 December 2014. It was performed again by the same artists at its official launch on 04 February 2015 at London College of Music, University of West London.
Francis Pott, 2015
‘The Towers of Man’ – EM Records, EMRCD 028 (released 16 December 2014):
Pott has a distinctive voice of his own. … [The title of the Viola Sonata] refers to two towers on the Isle of Man. …This background information is interesting, but you don’t have to know it to enjoy this superb sonata. …The finale is a virtuoso tour de force. These few words are sadly inadequate to evoke the power of this dramatic and superbly wrought work. …The composer is …clearly a formidable pianist. No praise is too high for Yuko Inoue, whose viola sings with magnificent, throbbing intensity throughout its range and throughout the work. …This is music of great beauty and integrity, and the performance fully does it justice. It would be criminal to let it pass you by.
William Hedley, International Record Review, March 2015
It was with eager anticipation that I received this new disc. I was not disappointed. …The Viola Sonata is instantly rewarding, …placing Pott firmly in the pantheon of great British chamber music composers. It is a strong, persuasive and deeply rhythmic tonal work. Each movement has a lot to offer, but …it is the final movement which is the real winner. Themes from the first two movement are developed along with new material into a wonderful final outpouring.
The performances are excellent. Yuko Inoue had long wished that Pott would compose a sonata for her, and she is beautifully toned in this recording. The sound is excellent and the booklet notes by the composer himself are similarly fine.
Stuart Sillitoe, Musicweb International, April 2015
These two substantial pieces by Francis Pott (b 1957) include his impressive 30-minute Sonata for Viola and Piano (2013). …This music is impassioned and pastoral, full of melody, emotion and eloquence; …that paints pictures and stirs the imagination and soul. Yuko Inoue is the notable violist, the composer also inspiring at the piano. The song-cycle Einzige Tage (2010) sets German-language poems by Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Alla Kravchuk, this time with Simon Phillips at the keyboard, brings drama and heartfelt expression to these harmonious, vivid and inviting settings.
Colin Anderson, Classical Ear, September 2015
The [Viola] Sonata is a fine, arresting work… Though the music is in the English tradition it is not backward-looking; instead the piece restlessly explores keys and interesting contemporary harmonies. It’s big, surging, assertive music with a very strong melodic vein. This is a very fine composition [and] …a significant addition to the repertoire. Yuko Inoue and Francis Pott give the Sonata passionate advocacy.
This disc contains two rewarding and accessible works in what are surely definitive performances. Pott is a significant composer and it’s good to have these two fine examples of his recent work made widely available.
John Quinn, Musicweb International, July 2015
In his Viola Sonata of 2013 Pott proves himself a major talent, and he evinces a compelling fluency in his highly personal harmonic language. His affinity for extended lyricism is affecting not only for the viola’s ruminative tone and the rich, eloquent textures of his piano-writing, but also for the atmosphere, the sense of place in his evocations of the Isle of Man landscape, and the articulate, contrapuntal interplay of voices. The same may be said of his impressive [German language] settings of Akhmatova and Pasternak in the collection Einzige Tage of 2010, which have an immediacy, pathos and freshness. This is a CD well worth exploring.
Jeremy Dibble, Gramophone, November 2015
Pott makes no apology for adopting a somewhat conservative approach to composition, speaking of an idiom ‘… which turns back into the past to locate and explore roads less travelled …’ and eschewing novelty for its own sake. But the music is emphatically none the worse for that. The sonata’s powerful atmosphere comes from its depiction of two strange towers, follies erected on the cliffs of the Isle of Man above the stormy Irish Sea. The song cycle sets poems of Pasternak and Akhmatova …in German translation, and forms a beautifully crafted addition to the romantic Lied tradition, with subtly incorporated nods to the great Russian song composers – bell sounds and sad, chromatic melodic contours – not excluding Shostakovich, whose DSCH motif is woven into the setting of a poem dedicated to him.
Records International, May 2015