Carwithen’s Bold Scores Conducted by Hickox Reissued

Carwithen cover

CARWITHEN: ODTAA. Piano Concerto* Bishop Rock. Suffolk Suite / *Howard Shelley, pianist; London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hickox, conductor / Chandos CHAN10058

In order to retain as many recordings by the late, great conductor Richard Hickox in their catalog as possible, Chandos has been on a reissue spree of his CDs. This is the most recent entry, a fascinating cross-section of the works of Doreen Carwithen, whose music is rarely heard on this side of the pond (as they say). The original catalog number was CHAN9524 and all of these were world premiere recordings.

Carwithen’s music was typically British of the mid-20th century: bold, colorful, and employing themes that either sound like folk music or at least like Vaughan Williams-Holst-Bridge-Britten-type adaptations of such music. The album opens with the oddly-titled ODTAA, which stands for One Damn Thing After Another; you just have to like a composer with a sense of humor like that! In its eight-minute length, Carwithen explores a surprisingly wide range of moods, but it’s a relatively lightweight piece.

By contrast, the Piano Concerto of 1948—though assuming a similarly jocular mood—is much more substantive in quality. The solo piano almost seems to be commenting on and playing “fills” in the orchestral score, at least at first. As we progress along, the solo part becomes much more vigorous and dramatic, and in time leads the orchestra rather than the other way round. Carwithen’s command of structure is quite evident here, balancing two themes in an interesting manner. It was really a shame that British music publishers, and concertgoers, began to turn their back on her for no other reason than that she was a woman, as she evidently had some bold and colorful things to say. The second movement is essentially along, involved dialogue between the pianist and a solo violin, accompanied by muted strings. Pianist Howard Shelley, a name formerly unknown to me, does a splendid job with the score.

Carwithen did catch one break: J. Arthur Rank selected her as the very first composer for his Apprenticeship Scheme to learn to write film music. Carwithen went on to write music for more than 30 films, many of them documentaries like Teeth of the Wind and the official coronation film for Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth is Queen. Yet though her style is a bit late-Romantic, it is by no means treacly or banal. So much is evident from the last movement of the concerto, using bold orchestral chords in block style to state the theme which is then virtuosically developed by the piano (with orchestral commentary).

Bishop Rock (1952) was dedicated to a famous lighthouse at the furthest outside point of England, the last sight seagoers have of land as they shove off. The concert overture, sor such it is, was meant to reflect the lighthouse in storm and calm. Beginning with a bold horn call, the music at first slashes its way across the mind, recalling the brutality of stormy seas. It’s obvious why she responded so well to Rank’s program for documentary film music, as she thought in terms of colorful sound images. After a calm middle section, the music works itself up to a fine frenzy at the 5:30 mark, slashing and burning its way to the finale. What a great piece!

By the time she wrote the Suffolk Suite in 1964, Carwithen was pretty much out of music as a full-time composer, working as amanuensis and literary secretary for William Alwyn, who had been her professor at the Royal Academy of Music and whom she later married. The suite was composed by request of the music master of Framlingham College as something the boys could play when royalty came to visit. This is the simplest and least dramatic work on the album, yet the “Orford Ness” movement has a certain charm and “Suffolk Morris” has a nice Irish jig feel about it. The last movement, marked “Framlingham Castle: Alla marcia,” is the closest to her regular, dramatic style.

By and large, Doreen Carwithen had a definite talent and could well have developed even further had she been encouraged and not discouraged. We’ll never know what fine music she might have written, but the works on this album give us an indication of where she was headed. Both performances and sound quality are superb.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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