I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s (1905-71) ‘elegant and witty’ Piano Concerto No.1 as part of the collection contained in the boxed set of 20th Century British Piano Concertos released by EMI in 1977. I purchased this at the ‘record shop’ in the Kelvin Hall during the Glasgow Promenade Concerts of that year.
This version of the Concerto No. 1 had been originally issued on an old Decca LP in 1957 (HMV CLP1118) featuring Moura Lympany and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert Menges. It was coupled with Britten’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D major, op.13 played by Jacques Abram (1915-98). Both works have been repackaged a number of times over the years.
Robin Hull opens his review of the miniature score in the Penguin Music Magazine 1946 by insisting that ‘the gifts of Alan Rawsthorne may yet stand in evident range of equality with those of Benjamin Britten.’ This is an opinion with which I have long agreed. The reader of this blog may be forgiven for insisting that Britten is the greater composer. Certainly the CD count (931 Britten to 41 Rawsthorne) and the relative extent of scholarship devoted to each man would seem to suggest that time has had its ‘sorting effect.’
Francis Routh has stated that ‘The road to music has many different paths. As far as British music is concerned, Rawsthorne stands in the direct line of Elgar, Walton, Constant Lambert and Tippett.’ (Routh, Francis, Contemporary British Music, 1972).
Martin Cooper writing in the Radio Times (27 November 1953) wrote that ‘No contemporary English composer’s music is more individual…slow to make his name, self-critical and fastidious, he has been content to follow his own instinct, consulting neither fashion nor popular taste, and so winning the ears of his fellow-musicians long before achieving more general fame with the concert-hall public.’
Rawsthorne’s music is vibrant, tuneful and always satisfying. It can be described as ‘detached, sardonic and melancholy’ rather than exhibiting an overblown emotionalism. However, this is to miss much that is lyrical and downright romantic. Alas, in our time Hull’s contention has slipped away: little of Rawsthorne’s music is heard at concerts or recitals. He is typically known only to enthusiasts of British music. Britten has [seemingly] triumphed.
There was a degree of ‘dissent’ when this Concerto was first performed in its original version for piano, strings and percussion on 14 March 1939 at the Aeolian Hall, London. The soloist on this occasion was the South African pianist, Adolph Hallis (1896-1987) accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Iris Lemare (1902-97). It was claimed that it was a ‘difficult’ work on a first hearing. Nevertheless, Hull noted that it ‘succeeded in arousing and holding the interest of many who do not consider themselves high-flying specialists.’ The work was subsequently revised and was performed at a Promenade Concert in London on 17July 1942 with Louis Kentner (1905-87) as soloist and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer.
Hull concludes his review by insisting that there is a ‘cast-iron case for demanding that the work should be recorded for gramophone.’ He adds that this work may be a ‘paramount instance in which the British Council might attempt to exert themselves, and even proceed to the extremity of helpful action.’ He concludes that as ‘an eternal optimist’ somebody had already raised the urgency of the situation…and that a recording may be imminent by the time this article is published.’ He had a fond hope. It was to be another 11 years before the excellent Lympany performance appeared in the record shops. At present (2015) there are some six versions available on disc download or in second-hand shops. These include performances by Mark Bebbington, Malcolm Binns, Jane Coop, Peter Donohoe and Geoffrey Tozer.