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CLASSICAL  December 2006

CLASSICAL December 2006

Subject:

Rawsthorne Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 8 Dec 2006 04:18:01 -0600

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     Alan Rawsthorne

* Symphonic Studies
* Oboe Concerto
* Cello Concerto

Alexander Baillie, cello
Stephanie Rancourt
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.554764 Total time: 71:30

Summary for the Busy Executive: At arm's length.

Rawsthorne is one of those composers, like his compatriot Humphrey
Searle, more on the edge of consciousness, even among aficionados, than
a particularly active cause.  In his lifetime, he enjoyed a reputation
as a symphonist and managed to evade the neglect visited on so many tonal
British composers after the Second World War.  William Glock's BBC, which
beat the drum for the European avant-garde, actually played him, and
without condescension, to boot.  It strikes me as curious.  There's
nothing particularly far-out about Rawsthorne's music - neither wilder
nor woollier than Rubbra's - and yet Rawsthorne's work somehow avoided
the stigma of the passe.  Who knows why?  Fashion follows strange paths
- viz., the fadeaway, the plantation hat, and the Nehru jacket.

Musically, Rawsthorne derives from Walton, particularly the Walton of
the First Symphony, a tremendously influential work among the young
British composers of the Thirties.  Nevertheless, Rawsthorne also went
his own way fairly quickly.  One can see this as early as the Symphonic
Studies of 1939, a piece in one large movement that many other writers
wouldn't have hesitated to call a symphony.  One hears in it some lingering
Waltonianisms, but overall the piece takes on a flintier quality than
Walton as well as an idiosyncratic structure that bespeaks an architectural
mind that goes beyond Walton's usual satisfaction with received forms.
The Symphonic Studies combine one-movement symphony, variation, as well
as the Schoenbergian process of continual variation, although I have no
idea whether Rawsthorne had actually heard Schoenberg at this time.  A
motto-theme generates the entire work, reappearing in various guises,
colors, tempi, and moods at the beginning of each of the six major
sections of the piece.  Each section is beautifully worked and the whole
carefully and subtly shaped.  Often, you find yourself in the middle of
a new section without an immediate idea of how you got there, even though
you've not lost attention.  You figure out in retrospect how he got you
from here to there.  The finale features an allegro fugue, based on the
motto (naturally), carried on mainly in the brass, and the piece ends
in a blaze of very full chords.  For me, this counts as one of the great
British scores.

Written for Evelyn Rothwell, the oboe concerto, like most for the
instrument, sings altogether more lightly, at least as far as structure
goes, the composer evoking baroque forms, like the French overture first
movement, the minuet second, and the gigue third.  Yet even here, we
speak only relatively.  The composer generates an entire concerto out
of perhaps three motives, two of which seem cousins.  The emotional core
of the work - though not as severe as Rawsthorne's usual - nevertheless
contains its share of disconcert, because that seems part and parcel of
Rawsthorne's neo-Romantic language.

The cello concerto appears late in Rawsthorne's output, after the
appearance of such seminal works as the Third Symphony.  Rawsthorne
always showed an inquiring, questing mind, within the bounds of a
strongly-defined musical personality.  The influence of Schoenberg becomes
more pronounced, the harmonic idiom freer, though still within a tonal
context. If anything, Rawsthorne's music becomes even more granitic as
he goes on.  The cello concerto I think the finest of all his concerti
- the biggest in feeling, the most masterful in its handling of the
interplay between soloist and orchestra.  The soloist gets an heroic
part, as in something like the Dvorak or Bloch's Schelomo.  Yet, I admit
that, unlike those classics, this concerto keeps a listener at arm's
length.  There's great emotion, but no chance for the listener to indulge
in wallow.  I'd compare it to the enigmatic parts of the Brahms Double
Concerto, a work I admire and even love, but some listeners may be put
off.  A structural marvel, the first movement, subtitled "Quasi Variazioni,"
is actually an extended discourse of continual variation of a cell,
rather than separate variations as such.  One feels it as the composer
intended, a "continuous piece." The second movement, in many ways the
most daring, plays with two themes - the first acting like a frame around
a middle section of the second.  The middle section dangerously flirts
with stasis.  The "theme" consists of basically two notes against a
chordal background.  The music seems to grind to a halt and then slowly
rouse itself back to the first section.  The finale takes the theme of
the first movement and retrofits it into new ideas.  You never know quite
where in the new material it will turn up.  At one point, it becomes the
end of a fugal subject.  The movement exercises not only the composer's
wit, but the listener's as well.

The performances range from a terrific Symphonic Studies to an okay oboe
concerto.  Not that there's anything wrong with the oboe concerto.  It's
simply a piece that doesn't invite a range of interpretation.  The cello
concerto is an altogether more complicated affair.  It's a piece that
needs years of performance to reveal itself in full.  This is a good
first recording.  We can only hope for others.  Cellist Alexander Baillie
gives a reading full of striving, some of which comes off, some of which
doesn't.  I'd say the same of Lloyd-Jones.  They are at their best in
the first two movements and lose focus in the third.  Still, a respectable
premiere.

Steve Schwartz

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