This retrospective of Alan Rawsthorne’s music is a mixture of previously released pieces with three newly-recorded works. The Oboe Quartet, the Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio and the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra were issued on the ASC label in 2001. (ASC CS CD46). The other works were recorded earlier this year (2016) in various locations for this CD.
The first of the two concertos presented on this CD is that for clarinet and string orchestra, dating from 1936. This work was first recorded on the Hyperion label in 1981 by Thea King and the Northwest Chamber Orchestra of Seattle conducted by Alun Francis.
The concerto is written in four movements. It is not long, yet it encompasses a wide range of emotion, mood and rhetoric. The clarinet is more of an ‘obligato’ part with the orchestra being of almost equal importance. The sound world is gently dissonant with moments of lyrical magic.
The slow movement, an ‘aria: adagio’, is profound and intense in its lugubrious exposition. On the other hand, the opening Prelude is ‘wistful’ and ‘engaging.’ The second movement is a breezy ‘capriccio’ that is interrupted by unexpected silences. The finale is described as an ‘invention’. It is the ‘lightest’ movement in the entire work. All in all, the Clarinet Concerto is a well-balanced piece that displays the skill and technique of composer and soloist to great effect. As a bonus, the revised ending of this work is presented.
The concerto was composed for Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston, the husband of Thea King. The premiere was at the Mercury Theatre on 22 February 1937.
The Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello (No.1) was written in 1935: it is the earliest piece on this CD. The work was first performed on 1 October of that year at the London Contemporary Music Centre, Cowdray Hall. The musicians were Helen Gaskell, Jean Pougnot, William Primrose and Bernard Richards.
John McCabe notes that an ‘interesting feature of this Quartet is that each movement is longer than the preceding one.’ The composer’s use of contrapuntal devices – fugue and canon - display considerable confidence. However, this technical display is balanced by moments of lyrical repose in a work that is often acerbic in mood.
The Times (2 October 1935) reviewer of this recital was impressed: he noted the fine fugal movement with which the work concludes. His main comment was that the oboe was used ‘as a thicker thread in the texture’ rather than as a ‘quasi-solo instrument.’
‘Studies on a theme by Bach’ for string trio was composed in 1936. The work is based on the first four notes of fugue of Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No 4. John McCabe has pointed out that this motive ‘fits perfectly with Rawsthorne’s characteristic use of thematic cells from which harmony and melody can be derived.’ The liner notes suggest that the title ‘studies’ could give an impression that the piece is purely an academic exercise. This is partly the case. The composer was manifestly developing his skills at writing counterpoint in a modernistic, but always poetic, style. On the other hand, there is nothing ‘dry as dust’ about this music. It immediately communicates with the listener, revealing a reflective mood. This short work is in three parts, a thoughtful opening ‘adagio’ followed by a fugue ‘allegro moderato’ before concluding with a dynamic ‘prestissimo.’ This is the first time I have heard this work, and found it both imaginative and moving.
Brother James’s Air for cello and piano is a lovely straightforward piece, that has no pretensions at portraying a modern idiom. It was composed around 1941. Most listeners will associate this tune with Harold Darke’s lovely arrangement for organ. The original melody was composed by the poet and mystic James Leith Macbeth Bain (c.1840-1925) and is most often heard with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’
I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s Cello Sonata in C major on the an old Pye Record (GSGC 7060) with George Isaac (cello) and Eric Harrison (piano). It was coupled with the great Concerto for String Orchestra (1949) and the Piano Quintet (1968). Since that time, it has been issued on the Naxos, Chandos and ASV labels.
The sonata was composed in 1948 at the same time as Rawsthorne’s Clarinet Concerto and the film score for Sarabande for Dead Lovers. It was dedicated to Anthony Pini and Wilfred Parry who gave the premiere on 21 January 1949.
The work is in three movements of almost equal length: conventionally it has been analysed as presenting seven distinct sections. Sebastian Forbes has defined this as ‘slow-fast’ 1st movement, slow-fast-slow, 2nd movement and finally ‘fast-slow’ for the concluding ‘allegro molto.’
Paul Hamburger (Music Survey, Spring 1950) wittily remarked that the opening six-bar phrase which consisted of two three-bar phrases ‘in which every note of the whole sonata is contained like the chicken in the egg.’
The key to appreciating this work is to enjoy the composer’s ability to balance ‘variety’ and ‘identity.’ In other words, he can make a small amount of material interesting and satisfying. The liner notes define the mood of this sonata: ‘this is a short, taut work riven with dark emotions, anger, melancholy, passion and, finally, resignation, with occasional glimpses of exceptional lyrical beauty.’ It has been well-described as ‘Rawsthorne’s Miniature Masterpiece.’ It is thoughtfully played here.
John Turner writes that A Most Eloquent Music was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 for that year’s production of Hamlet. It was first heard on 11 April of that year. This brief work is meant to be heard on stage: it is part of a larger selection of incidental music written for the play. The movement heard here supports Act III Scene 2, ‘Re-enter players with recorders.’ Two recorders are supported by a lute. It is an attractive pastiche of ‘early’ music that says more about Rawsthorne’s style than that of musicians in Shakespeare’s day.
The final work on this CD is the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra. This was composed for the Cheltenham Festival in 1947 and was premiered by its dedicatee Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli) and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by the composer. The work is written in three balanced movements. The liner notes state that Rawsthorne turned to French Overture form for the opening movement, with its slow ‘maestoso appassionato’ followed by a lively-ish middle section which is an elaboration of the introduction. Finally, the opening is revisited, this time it is even ‘more ruminative and plaintive.’ The second movement has an unusual title: ‘allegretto con morbidezza’ which appears a contradiction in terms until one realises that it is not played ‘morbidly’ but with ‘tenderness’ and ‘delicacy.’ Although the composer uses a waltz as part of this section, it continues the mood of introspection advanced in the first movement.
The final movement ‘vivace’ is characterised by wit and jocundity, derived from its prevailing ‘jig-cum-tarantella’ although the introspective mood is never quite dispelled.
This is my favourite work on this CD. It is an adeptly scored piece that exploits the colours of the oboe despite the generally restrained temper of the music. The interest of this work never lapses. It is beautifully played by Jill Crowther.
The excellent liner notes are derived from the original ASC CD with additional material by John Turner, Andrew Mayes, and Linda Merrick. I was not impressed with the cover design -to me it seemed less than eye-catching in its impact. The sound quality is outstanding for all these works – old and new.
The Studies and the Oboe Quartet are not currently available anywhere else: the ASC disc is deleted and seemingly not available as MP3. The Clarinet and Oboe Concertos have been issued in alternative versions by Hyperion and Naxos respectively. It is not a question of either/or. Vaughan Williams’s impressive Oboe Concerto presently numbers some 14 versions and Gerald Finzi’s popular Clarinet Concerto has more than a dozen recordings in the Arkiv catalogue. It seems little to ask of enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne to invest in the only two available versions of his important Oboe and Clarinet concerti. All of them are remarkable performances.
As noted above the Cello Sonata has been released in several versions. Brother James’ Air and A Most Eloquent Music are premiere recordings.
This is an essential recording for all enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne’s music. It may well concentrate on music featuring woodwind, but it is still a splendid retrospective and vital portrait of the composer’s music.
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-71)
Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1936)
Quartet (No.1) for oboe and string trio (1935)
Studies on a theme by Bach (1936)
Brother James Air for cello and piano (1941)
Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
A Most Eloquent Music (1961)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1947)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) Manchester Sinfonia/ Richard Howarth (Clarinet Concerto)
Sylvia Harper (oboe) Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Quartet)
Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Studies)
Joseph Spooner (cello) David Owen Norris (piano) (Brother James’ Air, Cello Sonata)
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorders) Roger Child (lute) (A Most Eloquent Music)
Jill Crowther (oboe) The English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston (Oboe Concerto)
PRIMA FACIE PRCD053