Sunday, April 01, 2012

Avril and Shamonia: an April Fool's Joke on Critics

Music by Coates, Rowley, Clarke, Dale, Carse, Fulton, Elgar, Moffat, Dunhill, Bridge, and Tertis
Dame Avril Piston, viola; Shamonia Harpa, piano
Guild GMCD 7275 73 minutes

This recording is a gift to the astute record reviewer. You can read a bunch of reviews from the Essex Chronicle, The BBC Music Magazine, the International Record Review, and a very good one by the independent writer Jonathan Woolf on the Classical Music Review Blog. My review in the the January/February 2005 issue of the American Record Guide didn't make it onto the Classical Music Review Blog's radar, but you can read it here:
Though the music is serious, rare, and very well played, this recording is actually a successful April Fool's joke (as the pseudonyms of the violist and the pianist reveal). The violist's character is described in the liner notes as a student of Lionel Tertis and the pianist is described as a champion of York Bowen. Both women are said to be in their 80s, though the violist has only been a woman since 1961. Before she was a Dame would she have been a Sir? I had never heard of Dame Avril Piston, so, being a dutiful researcher, I search for a male titled British violist named Piston, but I found nothing.

The playing, particularly the viola playing, does not sound like the playing of an octogenarian. Violists in their eighties, if they can still play at all, tend to vibrate slowly and often play out of tune in the high register. This violist, whoever s/he is, has fine intonation in the high register, a lovely and supple vibrato, and a great deal of power. The pianist is equally fine and equally strong. My questions led me to seek these musicians out on the internet, where I came upon a page of hilarious photos. It still took me a while to realize that the joke was on me.

Joking aside, this is a very nice collection of 20th century English viola music, much of it inspired by Tertis. There are recordings of the Bridge and the Clarke that I prefer to this, but I enjoy being introduced to the rest of the music, particularly the pieces by Alec Rowley, Adam Carse, and Eric Coates.
[It is unfortunate that those pictures have been removed from Guild's website.]

David Vernier was fooled. Walter E. Langsam, who made a comment on Tom Roper's blog, suggests the true identity of Shamonia Harper could be Stephen Hough, who has an excellent April Fool's post of his own today.


Richard Holroyd said...

I've only just come across this mysterious CD and the review. It occurs to me that the artists are well known professionals but not playing their usual instruments. Were the recordings made for a bit of fun at the end of a recording session ? It would be interesting to inspect Potton Hall's engagement book for the quoted recording dates (I think those are true whereas the names of the artists and record producers are false).

Elaine Fine said...

What a great idea to look at the Potton Hall calendar for the recording dates. As to your thought about having a bit of fun at the end of a session, the program was well thought out and beautifully played, so I imagine the musicians spent several recording sessions working carefully on the music at hand. I also imagine that you would find the hall signed out to a dedicated violist and a dedicated pianist in their 30s or 40s, and probably at least one of them would be male.