Stephane Rancourt (oboe)
Alexander Baillie (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones
Reviewed by: Tony Pickard
Reviewed: February 2001
CD No: NAXOS 8.554763
Alan Rawsthorne was born in 1905 as were William Alwyn, Constant Lambert and Michael Tippett. As a child Rawsthorne studied piano and cello and showed an early interest in composing. Parental influence led him to study dentistry, then architecture at Liverpool University, before switching to music at the Royal Manchester College, from where he graduated in 1929. There followed a period of study abroad – including piano with Egon Petri – and in 1935 he settled in London as a freelance musician. His first successes came at the 1938 London Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music with Theme & Variations for two violins and, then, at the 1939 Warsaw ISCM Festival with the Symphonic Studies recorded here. After war service in the Army, Rawsthorne devoted himself to composition. In 1953 he left London for the Essex countryside where, despite bouts of ill health, he continued to compose until his death in 1971. In 1955 he married his second wife Isabel, Constant Lambert’s widow.
Clarity, concision and craftsmanship are the hallmarks of Rawsthorne’s music and, like his fellow Lancastrian William Walton, his music has a distinctive voice, which is recognisable on hearing only a few bars of music. His output of some seventy published works includes three symphonies and nine concertos, together with orchestral, chamber, piano and vocal pieces, but no opera. He also composed incidental music including many film scores, most notably for The Cruel Sea and The Captive Heart. Even during periods of neglect, his Piano Concertos, Street Corner Overture and the Symphonic Studies have held their place in the repertoire.
A splendid performance of Symphonic Studies and world premiere recordings of the Oboe and Cello Concertos make up Naxos’s latest Rawsthorne CD. Symphonic Studies is Rawsthorne’s first work for full orchestra and shows a mastery of the medium. Tuttis are few – there are many delicate touches in the five sections, which follow the opening Maestoso, its material forming the basis of this 21-minute work. It’s a pity that the sections are not indexed on the disc and are as follows: from 0’52” Allegro di bravura, 4’09” Allegretto, 8’54” Allegro di bravura, 10’57” Lento and 14’30” Allegro piacevole. This last and longest section culminates in a short Allegro for full orchestra and a blaze of B major on the brass. Had it been written after Bartok’s, Concerto for Orchestra might have been a better title! Rawsthorne’s Symphonic Studies is undoubtedly one of the British orchestral masterpieces of the twentieth-century.
The neo-classical but emotive Oboe Concerto dates from 1947 and was the first of several commissions Rawsthorne received from the Cheltenham Festival; it was first performed by dedicatee Evelyn Rothwell with the Halle Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. In three movements lasting, here, around 16½ minutes, it opens with a French Overture, followed by an introspective Allegretto con morbidezza and ends with a typical Rawsthornian jig-like Vivace. Stephane Rancourt, the RSNO’s principal oboe, is the excellent, sympathetic soloist.
The Cello Concerto of 1966 inhabits the same world as the Third Symphony from three years earlier; at 33 minutes it is, with that symphony, Rawsthorne’s longest orchestral work. The first movement is a theme and variations playing continuously. Essentially lyrical invention is interrupted by rhetorical orchestral passages, the second of which leads to a cello cadenza. The second movement is elegiac with orchestral outbursts punctuating the meditation; the finale’s Allegro – Vivace grows out of shadows. This work repays rehearing and those coming to it for the first time might find its mood reminiscent of Britten’s Cello Symphony; Alexander Baillie is the eloquent soloist.
All three works are well played under David Lloyd-Jones’s dedicated conducting; he established his Rawsthorne credentials on a previous Naxos disc of Rawsthorne’s music for string orchestra. This latest CD provides an introduction to the composer’s early, middle and late works and should on no account be missed. For a comparative view of the Symphonic Studies, the premiere recording from 1946 (and Street Corner) is included on a Pearl CD of English music conducted by Constant Lambert.