Let Beauty Awake, Ellen Nisbeth

Music by Vaughan Williams,
Rebecca Clarke, Benjamin Britten
Ellen Nisbeth va, and Bengt Forsberg p
BIS BIS2182 (SACD)

There’s something about the viola that’s perfectly suited to English pastoralist repertoire. The instrument’s dark, autumnal tone, and mature, noble temperament seem ready made for this music, as Swedish violist Ellen Nisbeth proves here. Teaming up with pianist Bengt Forsberg, Nisbeth offers a gorgeous selection of works showcasing her beautiful, velvety tone, and impeccable lyricism.

The thread to this programme is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, here in Nisbeth’s own transcriptions. The simple, folk-like melodic character and dappled harmonic palette of these songs, and also of Vaughan Williams’ Romance for Viola and Piano (1914), are the main hallmarks of this style, echoed also in Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata (1919).

Clarke’s music is still not widely known, and her Viola Sonata was her “one brief whiff of success”, but it’s a work that’s instantly likeable, alive with compositional detail and colour. Nisbeth’s reading is notable for her nuanced shaping and fervent tone, and Forsberg is the perfect partner, particularly in his expert execution of the quicksilver music in the second movement.

Nisbeth’s transcription of Benjamin Britten’s Sonata for Solo Cello (1971) is a radical departure from the pastoral reverie. While this music is born from folksong, its character ranges from ghostly to savage in a compelling and angular narrative that’s woven perfectly well in the viola’s higher, tighter, though still shadowy register. Nisbeth has complete technical and dramatic control of the music, a series of eight miniatures completed by a long, lyricial passacaglia final movement.

The programme also features Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations, or rather ‘reflections’, on music by John Dowland. Nisbeth and Forsberg capture the wonderfully lugubrious tremblings of the opening, shifting perfectly from one musical state to the next as the music progresses, finishing with the melodic simplicity of Dowland’s original theme.

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