Thursday, 21 February 2008

Alan Rawsthorne: Coronation Overture


Alan Rawsthorne's Coronation Overture was composed for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. It received its first performance in April 1953 by that orchestra: the conductor was Walter Susskind. Strangely the next and possibly last public performance (so far) was given in Belgium!
Mr John Belcher, in the sleeve notes, informs us that after these outings the score was lost. However it is to the credit of the Merseyside composer John McCabe that the work has been restored: the full score has been reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts.

The piece opens with a ‘majestic flourish’ which gives way to an introspective ‘contrapuntal middle section with fugal pretensions.’ This development ends with some reflective violin and cello solos in conjunction with woodwind commentary. The work concludes with references to the opening ‘Handelian,’ or is it French, opening.
John McCabe himself writes that “…despite an attractive Handelian beginning in the manner of a French overture and some interesting contrapuntal development in the main quick section, it is regrettably lacking in real inspiration.” He suggests that the composer’s approach to the task was more an obligation than an inspiration. He concludes by pointing out that “both invention and orchestration are thinly spread.
The critic of the Musical Times was less than complimentary: he writes that Alan Rawsthorne’s reputation will “scarcely be advanced by the so called Coronation Overture…it gave the impression of occasional music at its least inspired.” He further confirms the impression that it was composed in the form of a French ‘ouverture.’

So why is it worth recording: why have Dutton CDs presented it to us on their latest release? There are three reasons, I think.
Firstly, the obvious one. A major composer like Alan Rawsthorne is probably best served by having the vast majority of his works available to the listener or scholar. It allows us to evaluate his musical development. Not every work a composer writes needs to be a masterpiece.
Secondly, it is not a ‘bad’ work – it is just not great. The average listener probably expects a Walton-esque approach to the Coronation – a flamboyant march with a ‘big tune’ for the trio – Rawsthorne considers a more reflective approach to the Royal event as being most appropriate.
And finally I think it is actually a better work than it has been given credit for. There is actually a lot of interest here – and the orchestration is surely better than John McCabe implies.

Alan Rawsthorne on Dutton CDLX 7203

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