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CLASSICAL  October 2007

CLASSICAL October 2007

Subject:

Rawsthorne Piano Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 15 Oct 2007 09:30:40 -0700

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Alan Rawsthorne
Piano Concerti

*  Piano Concerto #1 (1939/42)
*  Piano Concerto #2 (1951)
*  Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra (1968)*

Geoffrey Tozer, piano
Tamara Anna Cislowska, piano*
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Matthias Bamert
Chandos CHAN10339X Total time: 62:47

Summary for the Busy Executive: A milestone for Rawsthorne fans.

Born in the early 1900s, Alan Rawsthorne belongs to the same
generation of composers as Walton, Rubbra, Tippett, and Lambert. 
To some extent, all labored in the shadows of Vaughan Williams and,
later, Britten, despite the high quality of their work.  Rawsthorne's
level of recognition falls probably somewhere between William Alwyn's
and Benjamin Frankel's.  Alwyn's stock, thanks to a spate of new recordings,
seems to be rising, and several recording companies have taken a new
look at Rawsthorne.  Rawsthorne, after all, was one of the few composers
after World War II whose reputation didn't suffer in the rise of new
compositional currents, even though he wrote in an essentially tonal,
pre-war language.  After all, major critics had begun to snub Vaughan
Williams himself as old-fashioned and past it, leading them to seriously
muddle his importance as a major Modernist.  Rawsthorne, on the other
hand, continued to enjoy a reasonably good press.

Not that he was ever popular, despite his (admittedly rare) attempts to
produce a Promsian hit. A heavy curtain of emotional reserve hangs over
much of Rawsthorne's output.  One might call it "Raws-thorny." Even now,
reviewers seem to have trouble with it, in that they often find themselves
on the outside looking in.  I don't quite understand why, since I took
to Rawsthorne immediately, early on in my listening career.  One writer
calls the music on this disc "gentlemanly," a word which I confess would
never have occurred to me.  I suppose there's a kind of evenness of
emotional temperature, few outbursts of either rage (as in the Vaughan
Williams Fourth), song (as in Rachmaninoff), or ecstasy (as in Ravel),
but unmoving or unemotional doesn't follow.  Rawsthorne keeps the lid
on a good deal of the time, but what the listener -- or at least me --
feels is a gathering storm or the pressure building up under a boil.

The three works here come from Rawsthorne's mature early, middle, and
late periods.  Of them, I've heard before only the second piano concerto.

The first piano concerto, written in 1939 and revised in the Forties,
has a kind of neoclassical athleticism and wit to it.  Rawsthorne launches
the first movement, titled "Capriccio," with a crash, from which issues
a demon toccata.  This gets interrupted with a more lyrical, even yearning
idea.  However, it becomes clear that elements of both are almost
continuously present throughout the movement, with the song-like theme
getting subjected to obvious variation, including at one point threatening
to break out in fugue or canon.  The writing impresses one as extremely
tight, almost Rachmaninoffly-virtuosic for the player, and finding an
extremely satisfying balance of soloist and orchestra.  In some ways,
it reminds me a bit of Prokofiev's piano concertos, without the curse
of imitation.  The second movement, "Chaconne," shows more links to
Prokofiev in its side-slipping harmonies and sardonic tone.  It begins
as a sarabande and settles, for the most part, into a slightly disturbing
waltz with the atmosphere of the deep, dark fairy-tale woods.  The
harmonies refuse to settle quite into stability, and there's a surprise
near the end, guaranteed to get the hairs on your arms to rise, as if
you caught sight of a shadowy horror out of the corner of your eye.

The third movement, a tarantella-rondo, presents an emotional
ambiguity I find typical of Rawsthorne.  We start out light, airy,
almost fun-and-games, although we note that odd, unsettling quality of
Rawsthorne's tonality we've encountered before - a kind of teetering
among several keys without dropping in any, like those little puzzles
where you try to tilt tiny ball bearings into a set of holes.  As the
movement progresses, the episodes get weightier, even pensive, even as
the tarantella rhythm continues.  It's as if we hear two separate, yet
parallel strains at once, and one begins to wonder why.  Almost at the
end, martial brass proclaim the fragment of an Italian anti-Fascist song
before the tarantella exhausts itself and spins itself out.  Knowing
that the composer, a committed anti-Fascist himself, wrote the concerto
in 1939 may give us, if not a program, at least then a feeling for the
climate of this highly individual finale.

The second piano concerto, written in the early Fifties for Clifford
Curzon, operates with a larger, more post-Romantic sweep.  Indeed, the
concerto seems to allude to several nineteenth-century concerti in its
course -- the Beethoven Fourth, the Brahms Second, the Schumann, even
secondary lights like Saint-Sa=EBns's Second and Fourth.  I first heard
this work in the Seventies on an old Decca LP with Curzon as soloist and
Sargent conducting.  It seemed to me then a good, though not a great
score, but I must admit that Tozer's recording nudges me much further
along in the direction of great.  The work consists of four movements:
allegro piacevole, allegro molto (a scherzo), adagio semplice, and
allegro.  The concerto again turns on a typical Rawsthorne paradox: the
impression of rich depth achieved with an amazing economy of notes.

The first movement has a strange, beautiful opening.  The piano begins
with "vamping" arpeggios, as the solo flute takes a haunted first theme.
Quickly but imperceptibly, the piano winds up with the thematic material
and thus subtly exchanges its role from subservience to dominance, as
if one ghost melted into another.  Then again, the whole movement boasts
an unusual, though effective, design.  At first, you may be tempted to
think that, like the Beethoven Fourth, all the material appears in the
opening measures.  Indeed, you get halfway through the first movement
before the second thematic group appears.  That gets elaborated for a
while.  Classical development comes in briefly and quite late in the
game before the shortish recapitulation and conclusion.  The movement
ends with the head of the first theme petering out into nothing.  The
scherzo, angry as a swarm of wasps, plays with two main ideas.  The
first, a peevish "horn call," is heard as a fast run and as a slower
"second thought" - sometimes its two selves appearing simultaneously.
The second stamps and stomps.  The second movement isn't really the
classic scherzo and trio, but a compressed repeat of the same general
structure as the first.  It loses energy and sinks into the slow movement
without a break. The slow movement trades mainly in enigmatic introspection,
the mind in dialogue with itself.  It makes me wonder about the exact
nature of the role Rawsthorne has created for the soloist throughout the
concerto.

Most concerti assign three main roles: the epic hero (as in the Tchaikovsky
First or Rachmaninoff Second), the elegant entertainer (the Mozart 17th,
for example), the lyric poet (the Beethoven Fourth).  Rawsthorne gives
us something more complex, more rounded, more like ourselves, in fact
something very close to the soloist of the Schoenberg concerto.  The
enigma comes toward the end of the movement when a scherzo rhythm breaks
out (not as forcefully as in the scherzo proper and with different
material) and then subsides back into meditation for the brief close.
One can't call the quicker passage out of place, exactly, but it does
come across as an almost surrealistic detail, like a hand with an eye
painted on it.

The finale bounds out of the gate with a theme that recalls the optimism
of the Forties American symphony in general and Jerome Moross in particular,
and it continues with a Waltonian bubble.  It's certainly one of the
sunniest pieces by Rawsthorne I've ever encountered.  Much of his music
I would describe as flinty or granitic, but here and there one also finds
humor and wit which sound anything but pro forma, rather an honest
expression of something within.  I find it curious that its high spirits
don't erase or even triumph over the melancholy and furor of much of the
earlier movements.  It coexists, as if to say one needs a break even
from sadness, and in that sense, it caps the concerto perfectly.

The concerto for two pianos, a fairly late work written for John Ogdon
and Brenda Lucas, shows the further changes to Rawsthorne's style in the
Fifties and Sixties.  I would describe it as scraping the music to the
bone.  The scores of Rawsthorne's late period run to terseness and sharp
edges.  Some have found the influence of late Britten, but in reality
Rawthorne always wrote with the goal of making every note mean its maximum
and had, I must admit, a dour turn of mind - a witty Calvinist, if you
like.  However, compared to the two-piano concerto, its older cousins
sound nearly opulent.  The concerto's sound resembles that of the Bartok
Sonata for two pianos and percussion.  Through much of it the soloists
play either alone or with one or two other solo instruments.  The orchestra
either wholly or nearly en masse plays rarely and then usually only
briefly.  The concerto stays focused like a laser on the two pianos.
The first movement, "Allegro di bravura," comes closest of its counterparts
in the other concerti to classical sonata form, but even so all themes
seem tightly related to one another, most of them sharing the shape of
the "Dies irae" chant.  At a couple of points, the opening phrase of the
chant sounds out.  The second movement, the shortest, is, unusually (even
eccentrically), an adagio.  It plays itself out in the form of an arch.
It begins softly with a dialogue between low strings and pianos, reminding
one of the second movement of the Beethoven Fourth (certainly its spiritual
ancestor), gets interrupted by a stentorian blast from the full orchestra,
and winds down to a whisper.  The theme-and-variations finale suggests
one thing and delivers another.  The boundaries between the variations
are not so distinct, and the movement as a whole hovers between theme
and variations and continuous symphonic variation.  It recalls Rawsthorne
the considerable symphonist.  To some extent, the movement relaxes more
than the previous two, recalling the rich harmonic fluidity of the second
concerto.  Again, like the finale of the Bartok and of Rawsthorne's
second concerto, it differs tremendously in its relatively bracing tone
from the previous movements, and yet it perfectly satisfies.  The scores
overall effect is one of tremendous concentration.

Bamert does well by all these scores, easily outscoring Sargent, but
Tozer is bloody remarkable.  He has complete technical and interpretive
command of Rawsthorne's virtuosic and psychologically complex part.
Cislowska matches him in the two-piano concerto.  With performances and
sound engineering of this caliber, Rawsthorne has a great shot at something
like popularity.  If you're a Walton, Rubbra, or Alwyn fan, you ought
to give this disc a try. To me, one of the best recordings of the year
on the grounds of repertoire, performance, and sound.

Steve Schwartz

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