Ernest John Moeran’s compositional career began with a set of rhapsodies, and while they’re attractive enough, I must lower your expectations. They are not mature works, they are not about to spur a Moeran revival the way the Cello Concerto and Sinfonietta should, and they aren’t even outrageous fun like the Enescu or Liszt rhapsodies. That’s because Moeran was working with different folk traditions (Norfolk and Ireland), inventing his own “folk” melodies, and using the works as practice for his orchestration and structural skills.
Repeated listens have failed to convince me that the two rhapsodies are anything more than charming. Overture for a Masque is, though; it’s genteel fun, with rousing parts for the brass. Think of it as an English Bartered Bride overture. In the Mountain Country is the shortest piece on the album, but one of the two best. It’s an atmospheric postcard beginning with a drumroll and clarinet solo, and more than the rest of the album feels nocturnal. Any hints of Delius in the first few minutes get shaken off by the glittering climax.
The best and most successful work on the disc is the latest and the longest: the Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra, a product of the composer’s maturity which falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto. It thus meets a fate it doesn’t deserve, for this Rhapsody comes from Moeran’s final years, when he was at his peak. There are still folk-like tunes, lively percussion parts, and mildly dissonant harmonies, but they feel more clearly shaped. Moeran sticks with his tunes and develops them more fully. The piano part is more contemplative than showy.
Benjamin Frith is a superb soloist who elevates the material, as he has elevated so much English music over the years; the Ulster Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta are very good, although for the Masque you may still prefer Adrian Boult’s reading on Lyrita. That Lyrita album, with the Sinfonietta and Symphony, is one of two really essential Moeran albums, along with the cello concerto on Naxos. This one is more of a bonus, with a couple of very good things and some filler I’ll not be returning to. Still, enthusiasts shouldn’t hesitate.
Previous review: Rob Barnett
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