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Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Overture, Proud Thames (1952) [5:58] *
Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953) [21:50] **
Serenata Concertante for Violin and Orchestra (1962) [21:37] **
Music for Strings (1983) [18:21] ***
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley *
Manoug Parikian** (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth***
rec. 1970, 1979, 1977. ADD; DDD***
LYRITA SRCD.288 [67.50]


 

 

A friend of mine made an interesting comment about Elizabeth Maconchy. Admittedly her remarks were based on having heard just a few of her chamber works. She considered that if Maconchy had been a man she would have been in the ‘Top 10’ English composers. I tend to agree with her. How many ‘music lovers’ will have heard her name … far less any of her compositions? Of course this centenary year may be an exception – the Music for Strings and the Four Shakespeare Songs are being performed at this year's Proms. However, note that the former is played at a matinee concert and that neither work appears at the Royal Albert Hall. They have been sidelined to the Cadogan Hall: conveniently pushed to one side as if someone at the ‘Beeb’ does not really want to recognise her craft but feels obliged to note the centenary.

I was first introduced to Maconchy’s music by that great description of London’s river – Proud Thames. This was on the original Lyrita vinyl issued around 1972. Then, as now, I tend to see it in terms of Smetana’s Ma Vlast – although there is an intangible ‘English’ feel to this music. Ironically this work was an entry into the London County Council competition of 1952 for a piece to celebrate the forthcoming Coronation. I am left pondering the possibility of Ken Livingstone sponsoring such an event in these multicultural days: steel drums and Tibetan finger cymbals perhaps? Maconchy wrote that the inspiration for this was ‘the river itself’. She stated that it was meant ‘… to suggest its rapid growth from small beginnings to a great river of sound – from its trickling source among green fields, to London, where the full tide of the life of the capital centres on its river." As I write this review I am high above the Thames near Blackwall Reach – and the memory of her musical tone poem, for such it is, on this misty summer’s day makes for poignant thought. Proud Thames is one of those works that should be in the repertoire, along with Malcolm Arnold’s The Smoke and John Ireland’s London Overture; the reality is that it will probably only receive an occasional airing - if that. It would have made a terrific ‘Last Night’ opener.

The Symphony for Double String Orchestra is in the same league as similar works composed by Sir Michael Tippett and Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is quite definitely a masterpiece. Maconchy titled the work ‘on account of its weight and serious content’. However the formal construction of the piece owes more to Bach’s Brandenburgs rather than to the ‘classical’ symphony.

This Symphony is in four well-balanced but strongly contrasting movements. The ‘allegro molto’ opens with an insistent and quite aggressive ‘five note figure’, however this is offset by, as Rob Barnett calls it, a ‘fandango pizzicato’ – quite a ‘pop’ tune! The second movement is the heart of the work. Profoundly intense, the composer scores for an expressive solo violin. The music pushes towards a great climax before subsiding into the reflective opening material. This is one of the great ‘elegies’ of British string music. The ‘scherzo’ is wonderful stuff: it well balances the heart rending ‘lento’. This music is written antiphonally with the two groups of strings engaging in a spirited conversation. Yet it is not the traditional ‘joke’. There are some serious matters to be discussed in these pages. The movement ends with nod to things Gallic - or are they Iberian? The reflective mood of much of this piece is continued in the last movement – a well thought out ‘passacaglia’. This is intense music that is well balanced between a long ‘allegro’ section and a soaring ‘lento.’ One is reminded of a dozen composers – but it is never possible to quite put the finger on them! Originality is the keynote.

This Symphony for Double String Orchestra is a fine work. It is at the same time beautiful, moving, well constructed and challenging. It is so wrong that the vagaries of musical appreciation in this country have consigned it to the vaults of the ‘noted by the musicologists but unheard by the public’ type of music. Thank goodness Lyrita has re-presented this work. Let us hope that somehow it will become established in the repertoire of many orchestras. Yet somehow I feel that this will not be the case.

The Serenata Concertante is perhaps the most challenging work here. I guess that many listeners may not relate to this music in the same way that they would to Proud Thames or even the Symphony. Yet this is engrossing and demanding music that reveals its glories quite gradually. It is not an easy work to describe – but perhaps a musical signpost would be to say that it nods towards the Walton of the Second Symphony or maybe even Alban Berg?

The entire work is full of energy and utilises a small but effective chamber orchestra. Subtle use is made of a variety of percussion instruments. The solo part is certainly not a full blown tour-de-force, however, more is expected of the violinist than would be normal for a ‘concertante’ work. The heart of the work is in the ‘andante.’ The music here becomes transparent: the lightest of touches are used to support the musings of the soloist. The final movement is full of quicksilver energy; however this is interrupted by a slow section leading to a climax before the piece ends quietly with a conversation between the violin and cor anglais. The work was written as a Feeney Trust commission in 1962.

I have never heard the Music for Strings (1983): I understand that this is the first commercial recording of this piece. It was originally composed for the 1983 Proms. Somehow I would be surprised if it has been heard many times since. There are four movements. The tone of the piece is certainly less ‘modern’ than the Serenata. In fact, Maconchy seems to have made a conscious effort to write in a romantic style. Parts of this work are quite gorgeous, with the opening ‘molto moderato’ being the key to the whole piece. The ‘scherzo’ is much lighter weight – much of it being written pizzicato. Yet even here there is a short romantic theme – it could have come straight out of film music! The slow movement is quite sad – the mood being defined by a lugubrious solo viola melody. The finale is completely extrovert. It must be one of the few pieces in which Maconchy picks up on the ‘jazzy’ exuberances of Leonard Bernstein: other critics note the nod to Dag Wirén. A great finish to an excellent, but obviously underrated work.

I thoroughly enjoyed this recording. Although I have known all the works - except the Music for Strings - for a number of years it is great to hear them released on CD.

Here is a small, but as they say, ‘perfectly proportioned’ corpus of Maconchy’s music now available to the listener. However is it just a fond hope that perhaps Dutton or another of the CD companies that specialise in British music dust off the Symphony? This work was premiered by Adrian Boult in the 1920s but was subsequently withdrawn. And how about coupling this with the elusive Essex Overture and the Suite: The Land based on a work by Vita Sackville-West?

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

see also Maconchy String Quartets

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