Robin Hull, writing in the Penguin Music Magazine: 1946, believes that E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra offers a good alternative to ‘some of the older concertos that have been worn threadbare up and down the country.’ I am not sure which works this critic had in mind. Was it British works? Or did it include some of the inevitable pot-boilers from Russia and Germany. Certainly, English composers produced some fine examples of the genre around this period. One thinks of Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (1931), Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto No.1 (1939, rev.1942), Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto in C major, Gerald Finzi’s ‘Eclogue’, and William Busch’s notable example dating from 1938-9.
Perhaps what Hull is trying to suggest, is that Moeran has managed to compose a genuine Rhapsody – that ‘lives up to its title.’ He believes that he is one of the few living composers ‘who can handle this kind of pattern with true mastery.’ Rhapsodies can so easily become meanderings.
The Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra was written at a time when Moeran was at the peak of his musical powers. Recent works had included the Violin Concerto (1941) and the Symphony in G minor (1934-37). The Rhapsody was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the premiere at a Promenade Concert on 19 August 1943.
The composer, in a letter to his wife-to-be, Peers Coetmore, did concede that ‘to my certain knowledge, it contains more than its fair share of tripe.’ (10 October 1943 cited Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, 1986). However, a year later he wrote that he ‘…was wrong, and I really think that after all it is a very good effort on my part. It seems now all virile and logical.’ (Letter to Douglas Gibson, 10 September 1944, op.cit.)
This Rhapsody was designed with war-time concert-goers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. Yet, he never compromised his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation.
The work is in one continuous movement, divided into three sections. I find it quite hard to decide if this is a Concertante work or a ‘mini’ concerto. There are plenty of opportunities here for the pianist to display their technical skills, including several cadenzas. Hull notes that Moeran ‘writes succinctly and often brilliantly, giving due place to lyrical meditation, and achieves a feeling of spaciousness without the slightest deviation into relaxed or diffuse thought.’
The critic believes that the treatment of the keyboard is both ‘expert and closely sympathetic.’ It is a good balance between music that requires ‘first-rate playing, alike in matters of technique and interpretation, yet its demands on the player are reasonable.’
The review of the score concludes with the observation that the Rhapsody is an ideal length for concert programming: ‘the listener does not want a three-movement concerto in addition to a big symphony.’ Brian Reinhart (MusicWeb International Review) has taken the opposite view: he writes that the work’s problem is that it ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ It may also be expensive for concert promoters to find a distinguished pianist to play a work that lasts a mere 17 minutes.
Robin Hull wonders ‘whether anything will induce builders of programmes to…turn aside from the beaten track, [it] is a problem which seems to fall within the province of brain specialist.’ I guess that concerts will still feature the standard repertoire of Grieg, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven et al.
There are currently three excellent versions of E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra in the CD catalogues:
John McCabe, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite, Lyrita SRCD.248 Margaret Fingerhut, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos 8639
Benjamin Frith, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106.