Rawsthorne’s “Portrait” Reveals a Genial Creator


RAWSTHORNE: A PORTRAIT / RAWSTHORNE: Clarinet Concerto / Linda Merrick, clarinetist; Manchester Sinfonia; Richard Howarth, conductor / Oboe Quartet No. 1 / Sylvia Harper, oboist; Jake Rea, violinist; David Aspin, violist; Joseph Spooner, cellist / Studies on a Theme by Bach for String Trio / Jake Rea, violinist; David Aspin, violist; Joseph Spooner, cellist / Brother James’ Air / Joseph Spooner, cellist; David Owen Norris, pianist / Cello Sonata in C / Joseph Spooner, cellist; David Owen Norris, pianist / A Most Eloquent Music / Laura Robinson, John Turner, recorders; Roger Child, lutenist / Oboe Concerto / Jill Crowther, oboist; English Northern Philharmonia; Alan Cuckston, conductor / Prima Facie PFCD053

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) was one of those British composers contemporary with Benjamin Britten who fell through the cracks somewhat because he wasn’t Benjamin Britten. To a certain extent William Walton did the same, but unlike Rawsthorne, a gentle, quiet man best known outside England for his whimsical narration-with-orchestra Practical Cats, Walton greatly resented it. Michael Tippett was also largely ignored until Britten’s death, but happily lived much longer and was able to reap fame of his own.

Judging from the music on this CD, Rawsthorne was an interesting if not always individual composer. The first movement of the Clarinet Concerto, like William Schuman’s Violin Concerto, begins rather in the middle of nowhere, as if the piece were already underway. The difference was that Schuman’s piece was extraordinarily original and dynamic, whereas Rawsthorne’s follows normal lines of statement and development within the format of a modern work using extended harmony. Thus it is not without interest, and the movements are so brief (each one between 2:47 and 5:24) that he manages to make his statement and exit without overstaying his welcome, but it’s the kind of music I would best describe as whimsical rather than exciting. Rawsthorne’s writing for strings is particularly interesting for a British composer, using somewhat raw sonorities as Stravinsky did and not a more conventional sound à la Vaughan Williams or even Britten. Interestingly, this is most evident in the third movement (of four), marked “Aria – Adagio.” The effect is spoiled a bit, however, by the rather conventional ending of the fourth movement, but Rawsthorne recognized this and wrote a revised ending, also included on this disc as a 21-second snippet. They should have just ignored the original ending and kept the second.

The Oboe Quartet No. 1 is in the same basic vein but a much livelier piece. Interestingly, Rawsthorne wrote for the strings in the first movement as if they were discrete sections of a small orchestra, thus creating, so to speak, an oboe concerto in miniature, although in the second movement they interact more like a normal string trio. This is really fine music, a piece that deserves to be played and heard more often. In the third movement, Rawsthorne creates some interesting counterpoint between the four instruments at the outset, leading to a wonderful fugue. Almost predictably, the Studies on a Theme by Bach for String Trio is also a fugue, with interesting pizzicato from the viola in one spot and an interesting use of dynamics. Rawsthorne transformed Bach into modern music by the use of constant accidentals and continually unsettled harmony. In one of the studies he uses the cello as a sort of “walking” bass line against the two upper strings, a fascinating effect.

By contrast with all of this astringent harmony, the genial Brother James’ Air is a lovely, folk-song-like piece, just two minutes long, written for cello and piano. With the Cello Sonata in C, we enter a darker, more mysterious side of Rawsthorne’s musical personality. The opening is simple, almost minimalistic, with sparse single notes on the piano leading the cello through some dark music in B before suddenly upping the tempo and re-introducing dark, clustered harmony and a bit of musical angst. I would like to particularly praise cellist Joseph Spooner, who produces an extraordinarily rich, almost chocolate sound with his instrument, which suits this music beautifully, although pianist David Owen Norris is also outstanding. In the quiet second movement, Spooner lightens his tone to produce an exquisitely lovely, almost vocal sound in the upper register. In the last movement, the dark mood dispels to reveal a rather jolly piece that hovers around A and D.

A Most Eloquent Music is a short piece for two recorders and lute. The music is rather nice but one of the recorders is a twinge flat throughout. The Oboe Concerto, similar to the Clarinet Concerto, is a rather moody piece. In this work, Rawsthorne’s string writing resembles his work in Practical Cats. There are several good ideas here, well developed and interesting. Oddly, its three movements are longer than the Clarinet Concerto’s four, but the mood is similar, as is the manner in which Rawsthorne worked his material. I particularly liked the stutter-step effect of the strings in the second movement (“Allegretto con morbidezza”).

All in all, an interesting album, and a good introduction to this fine composer for those who don’t know his work.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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