It surprises me that Alan Rawsthorne’s Cortèges is even less well known than most of his works. I listened to this work again after many years and was suitably impressed. In spite of some negative criticism in the Musical Times this work is a striking essay that impresses by the skill of its form and the variety of instrumentation. The title was queried by the contemporary MT reviewer “Why in French?” I am not sure- perhaps the composer wanted to emphasise the ‘funereal’ as well as the ‘triumphant’ – which would be less obvious if he had called it ‘Processionals’?
John McCabe in his essential study of Rawsthorne’s music notes the considerable length of this overture -some fourteen minutes and comments that this piece manages to achieve “a rare balance between polyphony and intellect on the one hand and sheer delightful entertainment on the other…” The piece was dedicated to Constant Lambert, although it was in fact Basil Cameron with the London Symphony Orchestra, who gave the work its first performance at the London Proms on 23 July 1945.
The piece is divided into two main parts – the first is more in the line of a lament and the latter that of celebration – but not untinged with reflection. Paul Conway on MusicWeb International has noted allusions to Mahler in the first half of the work and suggests that Rawsthorne was able to skilfully combine epic material with intimate moments. The second section of this overture literally sparkles: the mood has changed out of all recognition. The work was described in the Musical Times as being a ‘packet of procession snap-shots, mostly cheerful in our inconsequential English way, but not very original…” I think this is being disingenuous although I wholeheartedly agree with the ‘snap-shot’ allusion. This is a good overture that was quite definitely a work of its era. This piece is just as appealing as the better known Street Corner Overture (1944) although Cortèges is much more complex and has a broader emotional reach.
Fortunately Rawsthorne enthusiasts are lucky in having two excellent recordings of theFantasy Overture currently available on CD: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend on Naxos and on Lyrita with Barry Wordsworth conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.