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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
A Portrait - Woodwind Concertos and Chamber Works
rec. 2016, St Thomas’s Church, Stockport (Most eloquent, clarinet); Turner Simms Concert Hall, Southampton (Brother James, sello); 2000, ASC Recording (other works)

Search Alan Rawsthorne’s name on this site and you will find a fair bit of information on the man and his music, but regrettably few CD releases. Labels such as Naxos, Chandos, Lyrita and others have a few titles on their catalogues, but any wide-ranging programme such as this one is very welcome indeed. As a note in the booklet tells us, the recordings of Quartet (No. 1), Studies on a Theme by Bach (both premières) and the Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra were included on a now unavailable CD released by ASC in 2002. The Clarinet Concerto as it appears here includes the première recording of the published, original ending as well as the revised ending on separate tracks. The arrangement of Brother James’s Air is another première recording. A Most Eloquent Music from the incidental music Rawsthorne composed for the 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet is included as a timely bonus that commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

I have to admit to having not paid Alan Rawsthorne’s music much attention in the past, and this ‘portrait’ programme is a good place to start rehabilitating. The Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra is an early work, but one filled with confident ideas and the kind of emotional weight I associate with Frank Martin. Even the quicker intensity of the Capriccio second movement has an air of lonely poignancy, the scene already set by a first movement rich in harmonic expressiveness. The third movement is an Aria that is both pensive and impassioned, with powerful material for both soloist and strings. The finale is marked Allegro giocoso, but the sprightly rhythms and scampering strings only go a certain way towards dispelling the mood of disquiet. The alternative endings are interesting study fragments, but you’ll probably want to skip them after having made their initial acquaintance.

Quartet (No. 1) for oboe and string trio is a little less transparent in terms of recording quality, but perfectly serviceable. With three movements placed in a single track, this piece predates the concerto by a couple of years, but is intriguing in its counterpoint and far-reaching in its melodic inventiveness. Studies on a Theme by Bach followed not long after, Rawsthorne taking the first four notes of one of Bach’s fugues from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier and putting his skills to the test in complex but communicative contrapuntal exercises in contrasting settings that presage styles and techniques that would appear in later works.

Rawsthorne studied both piano and cello at the Royal Manchester College of Music, and his transcription of Brother James’s Air is stylish and evocative. The 1948 Sonata for Cello and Piano could hardly be more different, with dark clouds casting shadow and threat over much of its duration. This is a powerful piece that escapes being too much ‘of its time’, and certainly deserves to be heard more often. The central Adagio unfolds from understatement into passion from the piano, then skipping off with an enigmatic lightness which is tripped up by a sublime final passage. The outer movements are both fascinating, and the energy and content of the final Allegro molto seems to burst beyond its relatively brief timespan.
A Most Eloquent Music was intended for a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and is an intriguing blend of antique sonority and Rawsthorne’s personal style, the recorders working through some nice two-part counterpoint accompanied by minstrel strumming from the lute.
Bookended by concertos, the programme concludes with the 1947 Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra, another very fine and elegantly crafted work. The oboe can have a melancholy feel of its own, and it lends itself perfectly to some gorgeous passages in the first movement, in which a quicker central section is framed by two slower sections. The central Adagio has elements of a ‘wistful waltz’ as well as some profound and deeply wrought writing for the strings. The final Vivace is more playful, though never entirely in joyful abandon, and with a subtext of reflective introspection never far away.

Hearing this programme has been an education for me, and I will be exploring Rawsthorne’s orchestral and other work at the earliest opportunity. The concertos are both rare discoveries and deserving of a much wider audience, as is the Cello Sonata. Documentation for this CD is good, with useful notes by John M. Belcher and a personal note by clarinettist Linda Merrick. Performances are all excellent, the recorded sound for the re-released chamber works a bit on the murky side but both of the concertos sounding freshly minted and ready to take on the world.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John France

Disc contents & performers
Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1936/37) [16:17]
Quartet (No 1) for oboe and string trio (1935)* [16:11]
Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio (1936) [8:41]
Brother James's Air for cello and piano (1941) [1:57]
Sonata for cello and piano (1948) [14:03]
A Most Eloquent Music (1961)** [2:15]
Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra (1947) [17:37]
Linda Merrick (clarinet)
Sylvia Harper (oboe: quartet)
Jill Crowther (oboe: concerto)
Jake Rea (violin)
David Aspin (viola)
Joseph Spooner (cello)
David Owen Norris (piano)
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorders)
Roger Child (lute)
The English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston
Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth


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