Prism: Fenella Humphrey's solo violin disc

Prism: Fenella Humphrey's solo violin disc

We met violinist Fenella Humphreys before in a disc of works for violin and piano by Sibelius (in which she was joined by the ever-excellent pianist Joseph Tong). Here she is, toute seule, offering a magnificent solo recital. A whole disc of solo violin might seem hard work (unless one happens to be a violinist), but for me (a lapsed horn player/pianist), this is spellbinding.

The disc was released last Friday (April 26, 2024), heralded by two launch events (St Mary Le Strand, London, on April 4 - giving the London premiere of Michael Small's Prism - and Leamington's Presto Music on April 24).

The disc programme is:

Cheryl Frances-Hoad Entrance Music & Exit Music

J.S. Bach Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 (arr. Humpheys)

Caroline Shaw In manus tuas

Erik Satie 1ère Gymnopédie (arr. Humphreys) – (released as a single on 5 April)

Michael Small Prism

Bethan Morgan-Williams One, Two, Bakerloo

Ailie Robertson Skydance

Cyril Scott Idyll

Sarah Frances Jenkins Tincture of the Skies

George Walker Bleu

Claude Debussy La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (arr. Humphreys) – (released as a single release on 29 March)

Sarah Lianne Lewis Apart we are not Alone, & Together Apart

Jessie Montgomery Rhapsody No. 1 – (released as a single on 12 April)

Cameron Biles-Liddell Contemplations

Robert Schumann Träumerei (arr. Humphrey)

Peter Maxwell Davies A Last Postcard from Sanday – (released as a single on 19 April)

This is the multi-award winning violinist's fourth solo violin album. In the following video, Humphreys explains the basis of the album, with the violin working as a solo instrument“prism” resulting in many colours - and including how she came to arrange Bach's mighty (and mightily famous) Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, BWB 565, for violin::

You can also see a 26-minute “Presto Presents ...” video below, too:

1. Davies: A Last Postcard from Sanday 00:00 2. Introduction to Montgomery: Rhapsody No. 1 02:10 3. Montgomery: Rhapsody No. 1 05:14 4. Introduction to Bach: Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV565 (transposed to A minor) 12:37 5. Bach: Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV565 16:18

The genius of the programme is to mix the familiar (there's a Schumann “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen there, too, plus a Moon River) with the new (composers including Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery, Cheryl Frances-Hoad) plus the mouth-watering addition of a piece by Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies (A Last Postcard from Sanday).

Capturing the virtuosic spectrum of tone colours of the solo violin and taking its title from a piece by Michael Small, Prism includes Humphreys’ own arrangements of much-loved pieces by Bach, Schumann and Satie alongside contemporary works and miniatures by composers including Caroline ShawGeorge Walker, Jessie Montgomery, Ailie Robertson, Cameron Biles-Liddell, Sarah Frances Jenkins, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Peter Maxwell Davies and more.  The album attests to Humphreys’ many remarkable friendships with today’s leading composers.

During lockdown, several composers gifted new pieces to Humphreys which she premiered in regular live streams from her home. This album’s debut recordings include a violin arrangement of Caroline Shaw’s In Manus Tuas, two works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Ailie Robertson’s  Skydance. It is great to see some Cyril Scott there (his Idyll) 

Cheryl Frances-Hoad wrote her Entrance and Exit Music for the wedding of a friend. It bookends the disc, which means Entrance Music leads straight into that Bach arrangement. As Humpheys says her introductory video above there are suggestions that Bach may have written a version of BWV565 for solo violin; it works brilliantly, emerging as a close relative to the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Many of Bach's gestures and modes of writing transfer perfectly to violin:

Originally for solo cello, Caroline Shaw’s In Manus Tuas was originally written for solo cello (specifically cellist Hannah Collins), and is based on the haunting 16th-century motet In Manus Tuas Domine by Thomas Tallis. Shaw's piece was composed for cellist Hannah Collins, and is given its premiere recording in an arrangement for solo violin here; the piece is a response to a performance of Tallis' motet enjoyed by the composer in Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut. First, then, the Tallis, performed by the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips, with scrolling score, then Shaw's response:

I confess to finding Shaw's Valencia less than appealing at a recent concert outing; and while some other pieces have evoked more positive responses, her music has yet to fully draw me in. Her In manus tuas is atmospheric (it was composed for a Compline service held in a candlelit nave) but little more, sadly.

The idea of a prism, of taking a familiar piece and 'spliting it' into different directions, comes alive when one hear's Satie's famous First Gymnopédie on solo violin (arranged again by Humphreys). Humphrey's captures the spirit of the piece perfectly. One strand throughout the disc is Humphreys' stopping: it is very much part of her, as easy as a single line, and Satie's piece plays to her strengths, without doubt. Interestingly, it comes across almost as a slow processional rather than a moment of complete repose:

Composed while the composer was living in China, Michael Small’s Prism offers an extension of Paganini's famous 24th Caprice.  Small explains:

 Prism takes the main melodic shapes of Paganini’s 24th Caprice and refracts them, spinning them out into long strands of notes. The piece is played “col legno tratto,” using the wood of the bow, which produces a faded and ghostly sound as if the music were faint light reflecting on a wall.

So here's the original, performed by the great Ruggiero Ricci, recorded in Geneva in 1950 and heard in a fabulous remastering by Andrew Ross of Pristine Classical:

Intended as an encore piece, Bethan Morgan-Williams’  One, Two, Bakerloo is derived from an unfinished 16th-century poem featured in The Little Book of Mornington Crescent that reads:

One, two, Bakerloo,
Three, four

... and that's it. Bethan Morgan-Williams is a new name to me: she was born in 1991. Her website states she writes, “quirky, rhythmically-intricate music”; here, her One, Two, Bakerloo arrives as “a minimalist collision of additive melody and metamorphosis techniques”. Its 43 seconds are certainly spiky and gritty, while the sudden final ascent suggests the incompletion of the poem in its function as a musical question mark:

Another work adapted from a solo cello original, Allie Robertson’s Skydance   focuses on courtship rituals for birds; the high, crystalline violin line exudes freedom. The birds in questions are hen harriers, who have elaborate courtship dances known as “sky dances”.

How wonderful to have a piece by Cyril Scott (1879-1970). Here's a compose who really deserves more attention: Debussy, no less, called him “one of the rarest artists of the present”. Scott was inpuired to become a musician by hearing Paderewski, and went on to teach Edmund Rubbra. Eugene Goossens called him “the water of modern music”. In his 1928, birdsong meets folkish dance (the video is below). And click here for a further suggestion via an old review of mine: Chandos' recording of Scott's Second Piano Concerto (with Howard Shelley)Symphony No. 3, “The Muses,” and Neptune. Influences by mystcism (specifically ,the Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Besant), Scott's music is as beautifully elusive as that of fellow Theosophist, Alexander Scriabin. The helter-skelter approach to the throw-away close is brilliantly rendered by Humphreys:


Debussy’s Prélude “La fille aux chevaux de lin” works surprisingly well for solo violin; the lack of supporting harmony gleaned from the line rather than explicitly stated, takes on a haunted aspect:

Sarah Lianne Lewis (born 1988) is another name new to me. Her pieces Apart we are not alone and Together Apart (which although separately tracked are referred to the composer as one, "Apart we are not alone / Together Apart” seem decidedly haunted themselves. They exist at low dynamic levels, shadows in sound. Lewis is a composer of great imagination, clearly.

I first came across the music of Jessie Montgomery via the very first disc to be dedicated exclusively to her music, on the Azica label. On it, she plays her own Rhapsody No. 1. This is the first of a series that will be for six different instruments, paying homage to Bach and Ysaÿe: violin, then viola, flute, bassoon, double-bass, and finally a chamber work scored for all five instruments. It is a terrific piece, of that there is no doubt and the Azica disc is recommendable not just because of the authenticity of a composer performing, but also to experience the other five pieces on that disc. The composer is herself more expansive than Humphreys, her tone a touch more astringent (which actually works well in this music). Sadly, Montgomery's disc is currently listed as unavailable at Amazon:

Sarah Frances Jenkins is composer in residence at the Presteigne Festival 2022-2024 and her three-movement  Tincture of the Skies was premiered by Humphreys at the 2021 Festival. Inspired by Canto II from Pope's The Rape of the Lock, its mode of expression is free and atmospheric. Here's the first movement, “Expansive free”:

The second movement contrasts well (“Resonant, dark”) before a finale of decidedly cantabile bent (“Freely singing”). While perhaps not the most memorable solo violin piece on the album, one has to admire Humphreys' glorious sound and legato.

I have been a fan of George Walker's music ever since I reviewed a disc of his orchestral music conducted by Ian Hobson on the Albany label for an American publication. My admiration was sealed by a late-night Prom that included a performance of his 1946 Lyric for Strings (review). His Bleu includes a quotation of a popular jazz tune, heard in double-stops. The Walker piece is the real highlight of the disc.


Welsh composer Cameron Biles-Liddell offers a set of miniatures, Contemplations, which draws inspiration both from Baroque suites (as in the sequence of movements) and Welsh folk music. The most affecting is the third, “Nocturne,” exquisitely played by Humphreys:

Interestingly, the final track is not Frances-Hoad's Exit Music (which itself comes after a stunning solo performance of Schumann’s “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen), but a piece by the great Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), a piece discovered posthumously at his home, A Last Postcard from Sanday  It had no title, dynamics or articulation, which grants the performer great freedom and yet ladles on the artistic responsibility It is short but very sweet, piece of real beauty and yet emotional power:

Prism is available at Amazon here; the Cyril Scott disc is here. I hesitate to include this, but the Cyril Scott Chandos disc (a single CD) is retailing at Amazon at £43.56. It is a good disc, though. Spotify and iDagio links below.

Prism | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to Prism by Fenella Humphreys, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Johann Sebastian Bach, Caroline Shaw, Erik Satie, Michael Small, Bethan Morgan-Williams, Ailie Robertson, Cyril Scott, Sarah Frances Jenkins, George Theophilus Walker, Claude Debussy, Sarah Lianne Lewis, Jessie Montgomery, Cameron Biles-Liddell, Robert Schumann, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Stream now on IDAGIO
Scott, C.: Symphony No. 3, “The Muses” / Piano Concerto No. 2 / Neptune | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to Scott, C.: Symphony No. 3, “The Muses” / Piano Concerto No. 2 / Neptune by Martyn Brabbins, Howard Shelley, BBC Philharmonic, Huddersfield Choral Society, Cyril Scott. Stream now on IDAGIO